What North Americans refer to as “civilization” is trending toward a watershed when it comes to terms with death. Not that we particularly desire that confrontation, but it is the way of things.
The Supreme Court of Canada last year reached the appropriate, and obvious, conclusion: Citizens should have the right to die — without having to battle their own government.
Our Supreme Court, however, has yet to come face to face with the inevitable, even though residents in several states have challenged theocratic-minded legislative majorities and made inroads regarding individuals’ right to die.
Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new Liberal prime minister, last month introduced the nation’s first physician-assisted suicide legislation. While the term “suicide” is not part of the legal jargon, it limits the assistance to the incurably ill, institutes a 15-day waiting period and terms it as medical “assistance in dying.”
The religious right in this country’s state legislatures and in Congress, as expected, bandied about their tired expressions of outrage about such laws being contrary to Judaeo-Christian traditions and government overstepping its moral bounds. But that’s more about political control than individual freedom.
In these United States, California has taken the lead in the right-to-die movement following legislative and court victories in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana. Gov. Jerry Brown last October signed the law which takes effect June 1, allowing residents facing terminal illness to get a prescription for lethal medication.
California’s law is based on Oregon’s 1997 “Death with Dignity Act.” That permits physicians to prescribe lethal drugs for those who other doctors have determined are terminal with less than six months to live.
In the Pennsylvania legislature, S549, sponsored by Democratic State Sen. Daylin Leach of Delaware County, languishes in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Given the legislature’s Republican majority and the theocratic leanings of many in that group, any right-to-die related bills can expect a similar fate.
But it’s past high time for Americans to have a civilized conversation about the end of life and individuals’ right to choose the quality, even the timing, of their death.
In Pennsylvania, any right-to-die initiative faces an acknowledged uphill battle. Religious objections to individuals choosing when and by what means they wish to end their own lives can be ingrained among members of evangelical, Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations. But such objections do not justify the imposition of their moral codes on those seeking a dignified end of their own choosing.
Stan Goldberg, professor emeritus at San Francisco State University, a cancer survivor and bedside hospice volunteer, best expressed the sense of things: “What I believe is disingenuous is when someone who views their own death as beyond a distant horizon suggests how someone who is about to cross it should die. So the next time someone adamantly opposes a person’s right the die, ask the question, “But are you dying?”
William Parkinson has spent more than 48 years as a reporter and editor at newspapers, the Associated Press and United Press International in this country and abroad. He’s mad about cats — and words. His column appears on Mondays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.