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Guest Column: Ensuring death with dignity
By Wendell Stephenson
Armond and Dorothy Rudolph — 92 and 90 years of age, respectively — didn’t set out to make national news; but their story should serve as a clarion call for overhauling the conflicting, ambiguous and sometimes cruel regulations currently governing end-of-life decisions in this country.
Armond suffered from spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that causes acute pain and numbness in the limbs. Dorothy was almost completely physically immobilized. Both had developed early-stage dementia.
In August, after consulting with family and friends, the Rudolphs decided to hasten their deaths by refusing food and water. Three days into their fast, they relayed their decision to administrators of their assisted living facility in Albuquerque, N.M. Although their decision was clearly within their legal rights, facility officials responded to the couple’s intentions by summarily evicting the 90-year-olds from their apartment — the very next morning. The Rudolphs resisted. So, administrators called the police to have the couple forcibly transported to a nearby hospital.
The Rudolphs had no legal recourse to keep their apartment. Fortunately, with the help of their children, they were able to quickly relocate to a private residence. Assisted by hospice workers, they continued their fast. A week later, husband and wife — married 69 years — died within 24 hours of one another, surrounded by family.
Thousands of Americans are just like Armond and Dorothy, burdened with painful, irreversible conditions and considering whether to hasten death. This population isn’t “suicidal.” They do not have an irrational desire to destroy themselves. They have already enjoyed full, long lives, blessed with love and happiness, and they know their time is at an end. They see a dignified death as the natural and appropriate ending to a well-lived life, when life as they knew it is no longer possible.
Instead of treating people like the Rudolphs with compassion and support, however, authorities believe they are in a better position to make life decisions for these mentally competent adults. In fact, just three states — Montana, Oregon and Washington — currently allow physician-assisted suicide. Some states are actually actively cracking down on organizations that provide support to people like the Rudolphs, who choose to hasten death. Notably, Georgia has made it a felony for an outside group even to talk with people about end-of-life options that include self-deliverance.
These restrictive regulations are morally wrong, and they don’t square with public opinion. Polls show that roughly 70 percent of American adults — and about 60 percent of the elderly — think the terminally or irreversibly ill should have the right to end their own lives.
Currently, except for the three states mentioned above, “voluntarily stopping eating and drinking” (VSED) is often the only legal, humane option patients have.
Done right, VSED can bring a safe and peaceful end; however, the process is relatively lengthy, between one and two weeks, on average. To manage any pain, patients require sustained palliative care, which is often difficult and expensive to arrange — 25 percent of individuals who choose this route have difficult and painful deaths. It is often devastating for their loved ones to watch individuals deny themselves food and drink for two weeks, even when those individuals have made a conscious choice to do so.
Americans facing end-of-life choices deserve other options. Inexpensive, safe and pain-free alternatives exist. Yet, just months ago, the FBI, Customs and other heavily-armed law enforcement agencies staged a dawn raid on the home of a 91-year-old woman to stop her from making helium hoods (one such painless alternative) in this country. Sharlotte Hydorn, of El Cajon, Calif., was the only source for such helium hoods in the United States. The agents held handguns to her face to ensure “officer safety” as they “seized” her sewing machine. Ironically, guns are the method of choice in the vast majority of suicides, and yet increasingly, laws and court decisions are making firearms more readily available.
It is time for the nation to recognize the inconsistencies in our approach and the needless suffering to which many people are being condemned. People who make the decision for self-deliverance after much soul searching, consultations with medical staff and discussions with family and friends, deserve a dignified death free of pain and with loved ones at their side during the process. As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, it is certainly time for the legal views on suicide and the rights of individuals to reflect the views a majority of our citizens have held since the mid 20th-century.
Wendell Stephenson is the president of the Final Exit Network. The website for the Network is www.finalexitnetwork.org.
From the Feb. 1-7, 2012, issue