Do we have the right to die when and how we want, or does that power belong to the state? Connecticut is wrestling with those questions in different ways this week.
Hearings were held Wednesday at the Capitol about legislation that would allow terminal patients to ask for and receive lethal medication. This is called all kinds of things: right-to-die, doctor-assisted suicide, and so on, and it’s been a legal flashpoint since Dr. Kevorkian and the 1990s.
Meanwhile, a teenager named Cassandra was still in DCF custody as of this writing after she refused chemotherapy treatment in 2014. Courts forced her to undergo the treatment; she is no longer resisting it, and her cancer is in remission. She is asking only to be allowed to go home, but so far DCF doesn’t seem to be budging. Cassandra may end up in a DCF group home instead of living with her mother as she recovers.
So a bright young woman is alive while we debate whether adult terminally ill people should be allowed to end their lives with the help of a doctor. The bigger issue is how much power we actually have over how and when we die, and whether the state has too much or too little power to prevent it.
Here’s a quick rundown of the arguments on each side of both situations. For right-to-die/assisted suicide, advocates want people who are going to die within six months to be able to die with dignity at a time of their choosing, while opponents feel like it doesn’t take issues of consent seriously enough and may unfairly bias prescribers against the disabled. In Cassandra’s case, the sticking point is her age — she is 17, and won’t legally be able to make her own medical decisions until later this year. She and her supporters, including her mother, say she is mature enough to make this choice, while DCF and the courts say she isn’t.
In Cassandra’s case, it’s easy to point to the fact that a girl is alive when otherwise her choice would have meant her death. And life is always better than death. Right?
But Cassandra wrote in an eloquent editorial published in the Hartford Courant that “It’s disgusting that I’m fighting for a right that I and anyone in my situation should already have. This is my life and my body, not DCF’s and not the state’s.” She described being strapped down and forced to undergo chemotherapy, and waking up with a port in her chest. She wrote of feeling violated and outraged, and ended by saying that “I care about the quality of my life, not just the quantity.”
This same sentiment was echoed at the right-to-die hearings. “[If the law is passed] I can stop worrying about how to die and enjoy the last days of my life fully,” said Charles Silbert of Ridgefield, who has metastatic prostate cancer. “I don’t want to die in pain, or in terror that I cannot breathe,” said a 66-year-old woman.
I keep thinking of what I’ve read about how doctors themselves plan the end of their lives. A new study suggests that most doctors want DNR (do not resuscitate) orders for themselves, even though they would aggressively go above and beyond to try and save the lives of patients in the same situation. That’s telling.
I understand the fear of abuse in right-to-die cases and that some people may not be able to really make that kind of decision. I understand that there is likely a bias against the disabled, and that “six months to live” is both arbitrary and also a hard thing for a doctor to estimate.
But I also believe that those issues can be fixed. The law can be made better, and when it is as clear and safe and reasonable as it can be, it should be passed and the governor should sign it.
What we’re really fighting against is the fear of death, and our own fear of being left behind by those we love. That’s what motivated DCF to take Cassandra from her mother, and that’s what keeps terminal patients hooked up to machines. It’s strange: we talk about being humane and saving them from suffering when we put our pets to sleep, but we shy away from treating humans the same way.
I believe we should have the right to choose when and how we die. I know that when I find myself facing the end of my life, I’d rather be able to make that choice for myself.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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