Redefining dignity through medical aid in dying

Ava Razavi

When every day is spent in unbearable pain, death may symbolize peace and comfort, not fear. Currently, 130 million people are living with painful chronic illnesses. Out of these 130 million, 70 million possess the right and access to medical aid in dying (MAiD). This law has been enacted in nine states, including California, and declares that a person living with a terminal illness and a prognosis of fewer than six months of life may choose to receive MAiD. 

Oftentimes, MAiD is used interchangeably with the term euthanasia, yet they are entirely different. MAiD occurs when a medical professional gives a patient a prescription to take which would end their natural life; euthanasia is when a doctor directly administers said medication to a terminal patient. To many, this difference seems minute, yet, the U.S. government declared the act of euthanasia illegal. This is because it could be seen as assisted suicide. By definition, that makes it a crime as one person is abetting another in their death. For those who choose to end their life, however, it signifies an end to pain and a reclaim of physical autonomy. Because of this, the personal judgment around medical aid in dying should be repealed and one should recognize the courage it takes to make such a choice. 

Illustration by Keely Ganong

It’s safe to say that now, more than ever, death is on our minds — mine at least. Seeing the New York Times’s COVID-19 death count rise by dozens every day constantly reminds me of others dying slowly from illnesses. In the past year, 918,000 people have died from COVID-19 alone. Thus, 72 percent of Americans know someone who has either died or been hospitalized due to COVID-19. For those who have a terminal disease or whose loved ones have a terminal illness, death is not something that can be pushed out of sight or out of mind. When we see death, we see a struggle, fighting to resist entrance to nirvana and hoping to survive for another day. Rarely do we think of those who no longer see their lifestyle as high-quality, those who submit to death, not by force, but by choice. 

Robert Klitzman, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University, shared his perspective in an article for CNN, stating, “I came to realize that, at a certain point, sadly, life may not be worth the immeasurable suffering of an unalterable disease.” For the majority of those facing terminal illnesses, the only thing that medical professionals can do is prescribe pain relief medication; yet, the balance between relieving pain and retaining a strong quality of life is difficult and often unmanageable. 

Asking to end this pain is not cowardly, but rather noble. Purposeful death isn’t murder — not always. Victor Escobar, a Colombian man who suffered from chronic lung disease, had been walking the trail of pain for many years before he opted for the detour, to be euthanized. In his final moments, he justified his choice, “If we ask for a dignified death it is because we are tired of all the illnesses that overcome us … for us, life ended a long time ago.” 

Dignity, defined as a sense of pride in oneself, is often lost in chronic or terminal illness, in between not being able to dress or clean or live individually. Eighty-eight percent of patients admitted to the hospital for incurable illnesses report feeling undignified.

I understand the fear of allowing the unknown to become normal, but MAiD is a misunderstood concept. The legalization nationwide would not result in millions of people hiding behind the law to fulfill their suicidal beliefs, but instead, it would protect people. Those who are terminally ill and set on death will pursue it one way or another — where and how is the question. It should be a priority that those who have lived their lives to their fullest biological extent and those who hold no hope for recovery in the future end their lives in a safe manner.

Life is indescribably valuable, filled with joy and love and sadness and sorrow; life is the only thing we have ever known and the only thing we will ever know. To throw it away is a shame and a waste when there is more to be reaped of it. But, for those who choose MAiD, there is little to be gained from life, and what is left to be experienced will never outweigh the torture of continuing their existence in immeasurable pain. Those who seek MAiD deserve the option to leave this existence peacefully and with dignity, thus their choice should be respected. We will never know the horrors of terminal illness nor what it feels like to see death as the only viable option unless we experience it. Hopefully, we never will. Nonetheless, the judgment and the negative connotations must leave our minds when we hear that someone has chosen death over a substandard life.