By State Senator Daylin Leach
Anyone who follows the news knows that we, as a society, frequently debate where personal autonomy ends and where the state’s right to intervene begins. Whether the issue is who we marry, what books we read, what substances we consume, when we reproduce, the question is the same: do we decide, or does the government?
All of these issues concern intimate facets of our existence and the struggle is to find the right balance between a person’s interest in controlling his own destiny and the state’s interest in protecting people from bad decisions.
There is perhaps no more intimate decision facing us than how we die.
From my perspective, we have, thus far, failed to strike the correct balance and we allow the state to be much too intrusive into a person’s final moments.
While we don’t like to dwell on the issue, when we force ourselves to think it through, I am sure that virtually everybody would prefer to die on their own terms. They would probably prefer to avoid unbearable and unending physical pain, and they would likely choose to die surrounded by loved-ones rather than alone, in the middle of the night, tethered to tubes and machines.
That is why I am re-introducing my “Death with Dignity” bill, which give people that choice.
The personal inspiration for this bill came after a close family member’s battle with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After long and aggressive treatments, they lost their battle with cancer. If any pet owner in America had forced a dog or cat to endure such treatment, they would be charged with animal cruelty. Yet human beings are, under current law in Pennsylvania, condemned to suffer unspeakable agony with no legal recourse.
My “death with dignity” bill would allow people who meet certain requirements to obtain medication that they themselves could take to end their life.
To qualify, the patient must be terminally ill, have no realistic hope of recovery and have less than six months to live. All of this must be certified twice, by the patient’s physician and by a second, independent physician.
Further, my bill requires that in most cases the patient must administer the medicine themselves, meaning nobody else participates in actually ending the patient’s life.
Sometimes bills such as mine are referred to as “assisted suicide” bills. This is a misnomer. The patients in these cases have no interest in committing suicide. They desperately want to live, but they aren’t going to. For them, death is a foregone conclusion. My bill gives them, and them alone, some choices regarding how they die.
In the states where this is already legal, we have seen no evidence that third parties attempt to exert undue pressure on patients to speed up the dying process. Additionally, most of the people who get the medication do not take it right away. Again, they want to live. Just having the medicine seems to provide the comfort and sense of control that some patients need to carry on.
Some patients never actually take the medicine and, instead, die naturally. Most of those who take the medication only do so in the last few days, when their suffering becomes truly unbearable.
In addition to the findings I have mentioned regarding states where death with dignity is legal, there is something else. Even many vocal opponents of legalized end-of-life choice often take advantage of their state’s law when they find themselves or a loved one in an end-of-life situation. To be honest, I don’t begrudge them. Like I said, none of us truly know how we would react if faced with such a jarring and difficult situation.
It is time Pennsylvania joins states like Oregon, Washington, and Vermont in our approach to compassionate care at the end of life to include the option for a respectful death on one’s own terms.
This op-ed was originally published by PennLive on March 30, 2019.
Senator Daylin Leach represents the 17th Senatorial District, which includes parts of Montgomery County and Delaware County. For more information visit www.senatorleach.com/newsroom.