Death with dignity is a human right, not a political fight

In May, Vermont quietly became the fourth state to allow death with dignity. Now, physicians in Vermont, along with those in Oregon, Washington and Montana, can prescribe life-ending medication to residents who are terminally ill and who meet very specific requirements.

I became involved in this issue several years ago when my mother found out she had ALS, a devastating neurological disease. She was 77, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, and knew what was in store. She asked me to help her. I spoke to her doctor, who said he might be able to “put her under” if her distress became unbearable. We left it at that, until hospice became involved. When I told them about the agreement, they said they could not support it and would now monitor the amount of morphine in the house.

At a loss, I did research, and found out about an organization called Compassion & Choices. They came to visit my mother and me and told us what she could legally do to take control of her death in New York. She would have to acquire the appropriate life-ending medication and take it while she was still functional. Like most patients in her situation, she was relieved to know what she could do, but she ended up dying on her own.

Death with dignity has come up several times in California. The last time was in 2006. The bill came before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it was up to the committee chairman, Sen. Joe Dunn, to break a tie. He voted against the bill, citing concern that future legislatures might end up expanding the bill to nonterminal patients.

Later, we found out that Dunn, who was terming out, was about to become CEO of the California Medical Association — the one group that was doing more than any other to prevent this from passing. Why? Because the CMA believes that doctors are only supposed to heal. In the meantime, polls taken during the same period reported that seven out of 10 Californians supported death with dignity.

All religions take a stand on this issue. There is no question that Jewish law and tradition reject suicide, prohibit murder, and accept pain and suffering as a part of life. The tradition is less clear when it comes to a person who is already dying of a terminal illness.

The Talmud tells the story of the death of a great sage, Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi. The rabbi is suffering greatly, but his students are praying with fervor in the courtyard to keep him alive. Out of compassion for his suffering, his maidservant drops a jar from the rooftop, stunning the students into silence, at which point the rabbi dies.

This story has been used to justify the removal of life support, validating the patient’s right to death with dignity, without pain and suffering. Judaism also usually considers palliative care an appropriate measure if someone is suffering at the end of life. But most Jewish traditions end there.

If we allow caregivers to remove life support and to provide palliative care, why can’t we give the terminally ill the tools for a death with dignity? The states that support the legislation have very strict safeguards in place, and patients must take the life-ending medications themselves after a physician has prescribed them for that purpose.

I suspect this issue will come up in California again. It’s critical for a number of reasons. The terminally ill — under the appropriate safeguards — should be able to choose a death with dignity, one that is free of prolonged pain and suffering. But more important, this issue is about individual choice — a basic human right that all religions should support.

Stewart Florsheim is the VP of marketing at Kenandy, a software firm in Redwood City. He is also a poet and sits on the advisory council of Compassion & Choices of Northern California.


Stewart Florsheim
Stewart Florsheim

Stewart Florsheim has published several books of poetry, including “Ghosts of the Holocaust,” an anthology of poetry by children of Holocaust survivors. He lives in Piedmont.