The elderly in America. Morton Genser, Florida, poses
with his medications. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Montana became the third state, after Oregon and Washington, to allow the physician-assisted suicide of terminal patients under certain conditions, following deliberations by its Supreme Court, according to the Associated Press. Significantly, the court ruled that the state's constitution does not prevent such a practice, but declined to consider whether there was a fundamental right to assisted suicide. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that such a right does not exist nationally. The Montana decision means that the legislature could become involved and negate the right, as other states have done.
I have always been a strong proponent of the right to die with dignity, and I quote below a Reader's View column of mine on the subject.
Reader's View, April 21, 2000 - The Idaho Statesman:
"The right to die. A more profound topic can hardly be found. And yet, no one wants to talk about it. Not our society at large, not the people living within. No one. Why is that? Why won’t anyone talk about it? More importantly, what is the right to die? Do we have one? Who decides?
"I believe that every rational adult should have the absolute and inalienable right to choose his or her time of death, whether that be at a specific time, or whether that be when nature takes her course. That's what I think. It's that simple.
"I know that most, perhaps the vast majority, will disagree with this principle, and vehemently at that Many will say only God has the right to pull the plug. Many others will say it should be left up to nature, perhaps with a little yank on the life support systems from time to time in the most dire circumstances. Still others will simply be aghast at the proposal, and dismiss it as barbaric and ridiculous.
"But for the remainder, and there are many, the subject is much too important, and much too real to shrug off so cavalierly. All of us, at least within our present or foreseeable limits of medicine and technology, are going to die. Every one of us. And more and more of us are going to languish on for years, perhaps decades, as we slide inexorably downhill from viability to old age and finally to vegetative decay before death intercedes and mercifully ends the degression.
"I don't want to wind up in a nursing home for 30 years having my diapers changed and being force fed pabulum, and I don't think any other reasonable person does either. But it is going to happen to millions of us if we don't start talking about it. If we don't seize the right to die from those who want to deny us this simple dignity. If we don't demand that it is our right, solely our right, in the end, to choose, or not to choose, to die, and when. That it is not up to God, to nature, or to others to make this determination for us.
"I am not saying that we have an absolute right to assisted suicide. I am not saying that we should not intercede when someone is about to jump out of a skyscraper, or take a lethal dose of medication. What I am saying is that in the end, after all reasonable avenues have been explored, each and every one of us should have the unconditional right to end his or her life. Period. And that the hows and wheres and methods and safeguards should derive from this one fundamental principle, And that it is not society's right to dictate to the individual when and under what circumstances, if any at all, he may be permitted to choose his own death.
"It is ironic, that at the other end of life, where the issues are clearer, affect far fewer people, and where the period in question is short and well understood, that a debate has raged for decades among virtually all of us, and that no progress has been made, no resolution. We do not seem to be able to decide at what point, from conception to natural birth, we are willing to grant the fetus the absolute and inalienable right to survive. It does not augur well for a resolution of this far more difficult and universal issue.
"But if we do not begin the debate, if we do not face the issue, we are going to wind up with consequences that trivialize the abortion dilemma by comparison. I am hoping that these views will encourage a constructive debate on the right to die, and not a mindless, negative reaction to an admittedly provocative position."
We haven't progressed very far since that column was published nearly ten years ago. In fact, we've retrogressed, as many states have slammed the door on physician-assisted suicide altogether. Public opinion over the years has shown little change. This Pew poll from 2005 suggests only half the American people (46%-45%) favor physician-assisted suicide, although an overwhelming 84% approve of the more passive right to die through withdrawal of extreme measures to maintain bodily functions. Sooner or later we are going to pay a price for failing to meet this issue head-on. It is beyond my comprehension that half the American people would deny the elderly the right to die with dignity at the time that they choose, and instead condemn them to the ravages, pain and indignities of a slow, tortuous and hopeless decline into death.