The majority of people in the world probably don’t like to think about their own death, for good reasons I’d imagine. As adults, we are aware that we’ll one day have to face our own mortality. Nobody lives forever. For millions of people diagnosed with terminal illnesses each year, facing your mortality can come much sooner than expected. These people struggle to accept the diagnosis they have been given, many fight their illness in whichever ways they can for as long as possible, and likely suffer with much pain -- physically, emotionally, and mentally. The thing all of these people have in common is how their illness ends. The word “terminal”, as I’m sure you are aware, means the disease is likely incurable and will ultimately lead to the death of the patient. What can be different however, is how and when the end finally comes. Some choose to end their life before the illness takes it away. Currently, assisted suicide is legal in at least four countries and four US States (“Vermont Becomes 4th State to Approve Doctor-assisted Suicide Law“).
Assisted suicide first gained massive public attention in the 1990’s with Jack Kevorkian, also known as “Doctor Death”. Kevorkian was a Michigan doctor who helped euthanize over 100 people between 1990 and 1998 before his arrest in 1999. Most of the people that Kevorkian helped were terminally ill, and they were given a dose of barbiturates intravenously or ended their life by carbon monoxide poisoning with a mask. The patient was instructed to push a button or flip a switch to begin the euthanasia process themselves. Upon his arrest, Kevorkian had both supporters and critics. Some critics saw him as a monster, helping to prematurely end the life of another human being. Supporters saw him as a godsend, helping to end the suffering of those in unspeakable amounts of incurable pain. This newfound attention that assisted suicide gained began to shed a light on a topic we couldn’t ignore: should terminally ill people be allowed to have this choice? Before one should answer, it’s important to understand why a person would make this choice in the first place.
In John Zaritsky’s documentary, The Suicide Tourist, he followed a man by the name of Craig Ewert. Ewert was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and was rapidly deteriorating and facing full paralysis. He had sought the assistance of an organization in Switzerland called Dignitas, because the country he currently lived in did not allow assisted suicide. To date, Switzerland is the only country that allows non-citizens to travel to for the procedure. During the documentary, Ewert explained why he had made his choice:
At this point, you know, I've got two choices. I either actually go through with it, or I say, "You know what? I'm too scared right now. I don't want to do it." If I go through with it, I die, as I must at some point. If I don't go through with it, my choice is essentially to suffer and to inflict suffering...