Seven-and-a-half years ago, I witnessed my husband’s death from an aggressive form of lymphoma. Three-and-a-half years ago, I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer that has spread from my breast to my bone marrow. These life-changing events have forced me to face the reality of mortality that most of us would prefer to ignore.
Before retiring, I spent four decades as a clinical social worker, including 20 years in a private psychotherapy practice. Because of both personal and professional experiences, I support the legal option of death with dignity for terminally ill, mentally competent adults with fewer than six months to live.
These laws authorize a physician to prescribe medication that will bring about a peaceful death at the time and place of the dying person’s choosing. They facilitate most people’s preference to die at home, surrounded by their loved ones, rather than in settings where it is not always possible to effectively control pain and suffering.
Maryland needs an end-of-life option like Vermont, where in 2010, then-gubernatorial candidate Peter Shumlin (D) promised to pass a death-with-dignity law. In May 2013, Shumlin fulfilled that pledge by signing such a measure into law, becoming the first state to reach that point through legislative action .
This end-of-life option is now also legal in Oregon and Washington as a result of successful ballot initiatives. In Montana and New Mexico, the right to death with dignity came about via a state Supreme Court ruling and district court ruling, respectively. Last year, a bipartisan group of Democratic and Republican Montana state representatives and senators helped defeat a bill that would have reversed the Supreme Court ruling.
In Maryland, there has been some support for the issue. In April, Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D) became the first gubernatorial candidate in the state to publicly pledge to pass death-with-dignity legislation if elected governor. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who voted against prohibiting death with dignity when he was a delegate, recently said he is willing to discuss such a measure.
If pollsters surveyed Maryland voters on this issue, I believe they would discover strong support for passing a death-with-dignity law in the state. Why do voters support death with dignity and the candidates who champion it? Because they don’t want government interfering in their most intimate, personal decisions at the end of life.
And why do opponents use the terms “assisted suicide” and “euthanasia” when nothing could be further from the meaning of these pejorative words? Because polls show that using these words frightens voters who don’t actually understand the proposed treatment.
As a psychotherapist, I’ve experienced many times the difference between someone who is suicidal and could be treated for this condition and one who is dying and the process can’t be stopped. Euthanasia is defined as one directly acting to bring about the death of another person; death with dignity requires that a dying person who is mentally capable of making this decision to personally request, obtain and self-administer the medications that will bring about a peaceful death.
I’m grateful for the time I’ve been given since receiving the diagnosis of terminal-stage cancer. When the time comes that my treatment is no longer helpful, I want the option of ending my dying process peacefully. No one should have to suffer — neither a dying person nor those who care about him or her — when we can use medicine for what it is meant to do: relieve suffering. I want to be able to exert full autonomy at the end of life as I’ve been privileged to do throughout my life.
Whenever I talk about this topic — whether with friends, family, those I meet in presentations or with candidates for public office — without fail, I hear a personal story that would lead that person to support this option at the end of life. I’m hopeful that a growing understanding of what is meant by death with dignity will lead to the political will in Annapolis to make this option available to those in Maryland who would wish to use it.
The writer is a volunteer member of a Maryland action team for Compassion & Choices, the nation’s oldest and largest end-of-life choice advocacy, education and research organization.