Adding Death with Dignity to Healthcare

As the recent media reports on the Supreme Court's examination of the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (known by some as ObamaCare), many Americans are contemplating the future of national healthcare policy. Now that our attention has been focused on this issue, it's important to discuss a controversial topic that usually gets swept under the rug in the conversation about healthcare.

While almost all of us agree that life is a beautiful experience full of wonder, struggle, love, and many more worthy experiences, we must also acknowledge that for some it may have become irreversibly painful and unwanted. For these people, the trauma associated with disease and the restrictive nature of age transforms continued living into a daily exercise of pain and humiliation. Our empathetic sense of compassion in such cases dictates that we allow for a release from such suffering.

Since 1959, long before the activism of Jack Kevorkian, the Hemlock Society, and similar organizations (today lead by Compassion and Choices), the American Humanist Association has firmly supported the right of those who face incurable suffering to end their lives if they so choose, as long as all possible safeguards against misuse of the law are provided. Like  Oregon's Death With Dignity Act it makes sense to have medical and psychological personnel evaluate people to make sure efforts to alleviate suffering have been attempted, and that the individuals are of sound mind when making such an irreversible decision.

This thinking is based in part on the question regarding whether a human being truly "owns" his or her own life or if that life belongs to another (e.g., their family, their society, their god). Humanists conclude that every single human being is the ultimate owner of his or her body and mind. Therefore, a person has the right to end his or her own life and it's up to society to make sure that right is maintained and it's not abused by those who might gain from the demise of others.

Consider the story of Anastasia Khoreva, a 105-year-old woman who survived the Russian Revolution and two world wars. Friends said the great-great-great-grandmother had been depressed after being stricken with a lung infection and had expressed a desire to commit suicide. Anastasia ended her life in March by hanging herself and was discovered by her loved ones shortly after. This case didn't have to end in the tragic way it did. What if, instead of violently killing herself alone in a room and traumatizing those who found her, Anastasia had been allowed to go to a hospital for an end of life procedure? What if her final moments had been in a bed, surrounded by her loving family and friends as she painlessly drifted into unconsciousness and then died?

Exercising true compassion in situations like this may mean understanding a loved one's desire to break out of the prison of life in which they experience constant torment. We, as outsiders, may feel that prison is more desirable to non-existence, but we must recognize that this choice is not ours. Whether or not we are family, friends, or politicians, we don't have the right to delay our sense of loss so that people who are in pain continue to suffer. Nor do we have the right to impose our religious beliefs regarding assisted suicide on others.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a beginning in the struggle to ensure that Americans are given the vital healthcare services they need to survive. But healthcare shouldn't just be focused on prolonging life. It should also work to improve the quality of life of patients and grant them a pain-free escape from suffering after the request is properly evaluated by trained professionals. It is essential to remember that the desire to help another human being is the foundation upon which the modern healthcare system is built, and in that effort we must recognize that occasionally the help that is desired is a compassionate ending of a life filled with anguish.

As the healthcare debate continues, this issue deserves special attention. People like Anastasia Khoreva and her family should not have to suffer the trauma of an undignified and painful death. A solution should be devised to ensure that those who no longer wish to live are able to go about ending their own lives in a dignified and safe way.

4/2/2012 4:00:00 AM
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  • Roy Speckhardt
    About Roy Speckhardt
    Roy Speckhardt is the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association. He is also a board member of the organization providing Humanists leadership training, the Humanist Institute, and an advisory board member of Secular Student Alliance. Follow him at