The state of Hawaii recently passed the Our Care, Our Choice Act, which legalizes “medically assisted death.” For those wanting to end their life, it requires they have two witnesses attesting to their desire for death and two doctors agreeing the patient has six months or fewer to live.
Furthermore, while mental-health evaluations are normally prescribed for those who unsuccessfully commit suicide, this legislation requires such an evaluation to successfully end one’s life.
While some term this act “physician assisted suicide,” physicians are not necessarily administering the lethal drugs. “State Sanctioned Suicide” seems a more accurate name, since the state is codifying the act – although not legally deeming it a suicide if performed according to the Act’s procedural outline.
Regardless of the name, the outcome remains the same. For those weighing suicide as an option, the sole impediment is an innate moral boundary that can only be shifted by impairment, disease, or societal manipulation.
While conversations about compassion and dignity surround this topic, the move to legislate this act raises significant questions and concerns. For instance, the act also states that the fatal dose of medication is to be self-administered. But if one is physically unable to administer the fatal dosage of drugs for themselves, should a friend or family caregiver be required to help that individual take their life?
Furthermore, once a “qualified patient” decides to take their own life, they are to be counseled by their doctor to avoid ending their life alone or in a public place. So, who gets to be present? Again, the attending caregiver, not the attending doctor, is the most likely choice.
It remains unclear regarding instructions for the caregiver to deal with the emotional consequences of helping end the life of another human being. The law requires a mental health evaluation for the patient, yet omits the same evaluation for the person(s) who is caring for the patient.
Should the patient choose to end their own life, a caregiver remains to live with the guilt, sorrow, anger, resentment, and a host of other feelings that often comes in conflicting waves. While the family caregiver may not possess a legal voice on this issue, they certainly can claim a stake in the process—as well as the consequences.
This legalization of medically-assisted death for a patient— now in seven states—puts us on a slippery slope as a nation. We approach this subject with the veneer of compassion, tossing the word about as a tool of reason. But is it not also compassionate to encourage our loved ones and remind them of their lives’ importance?
Is life only valuable if pain-free and death remains further out than six months?
In many cases, a caregiver’s voice is the primary one heard by someone suffering—physically or mentally. A caregiver’s words and attitude can compound feelings of despair and hopelessness or inspire and strengthen. If the caregiver is in an unhealthy place, it’s almost certain that they can’t offer strength and encouragement. But a healthier caregiver can speak words of life and value to a suffering loved one—even one who faces a difficult death that looms on the horizon.
As a caregiver for someone with severe disabilities and in chronic pain for more than 30 years, I understand the heartache in watching someone in agony. Serving as a bystander while a loved one suffers can leave one distraught, exhausted, and disoriented. It’s difficult to understand the right path in such circumstances. Yet those times are when we can experience life in a much different, and even amazing, capacity. We may never feel better about the harsh things we experience or observe, but the goal is not to feel better. It is to be better people.
Granting legal permission for suffering patients to end their lives may offer a path toward what some call “dying with dignity.” In doing so, however, society receives a signal that a line exists where suffering overshadows the will to live. Recent high-profile suicides also demonstrate that suffering exists on many levels. While suffering is subjective, death is not.
“Dying with dignity” sounds noble and even benevolent. Accepting that premise, however, may tragically deprive those who suffer, as well as those who care for them, the opportunity to embrace such challenges, while still living…with dignity.
“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Proverbs 18:20-21
Peter Rosenberger is a 30-year caregiver for his wife, Gracie, who lives with severe physical disabilities. He has authored four books, including Hope for the Caregiver, and his radio show for family caregivers airs syndicated on more than 200 stations across the country.