Michael Ragland: Death with Dignity

In the past there have been numerous historical struggles of civil rights of various people’s, often minorities; rights and freedoms that provide an individual specific rights such as the freedom from slavery and forced labour, freedom from torture and death, Of course, the term “civil rights” entails more than this but one civil right which hasn’t gained much political traction in the U.S. is a terminally ill patient’s right and the rights of those in hopeless intractable pain to responsibly and purposefully end his or her life with the assistance of a physician. Such a state of affairs exists in Oregon with their Death with Dignity Law. In this case the physician does not actively kill the patient but provides the means, usually barbiturates and antimemetics to the terminally ill patient.

Pathologist and right to die advocate Jack Kevorkian worked for years providing the means to terminally ill patients or those in intractable and hopeless pain to responsibly and purposefully end their lives. When he went on camera in front of “60 Minutes,” in a misguided attempt to gain more exposure for the cause, he was arrested and sentenced to 11 years in prison. However, his struggle continues on and will long after his death. Kevorkian thought it was a physician’s responsibility to alleviate the intractable suffering and terminal illnesses of patients and that included in some cases assisting them to responsibly and purposefully end their own lives.

Unfortunately, the past historical and political luggage of  “euthanasia” have prejudiced many people against the idea of patients responsibly and purposefully ending their hopeless and intractably painful and terminally ill lives. Suicide is usually thought of in terms of a person who is severely depressed who if given the right medication will cease wanting to end their own lives. It is also thought of as a violent act; in German it literally means ‘murder of the self’. Euthanasia was employed by the Third Reich but it was almost exclusively non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia; it was nothing like Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act which has been in practice since 1997.

Unfortunately some of us will die in significant pain, loss of bodily functions, loss of cognitive awareness and certainly not on our own terms. I respect the rights and beliefs of those who think it is their time to go when “God” takes them and not by their own hands or wishes. All I ask is they extend the same tolerance toward those terminally ill and in hopeless intractable pain who choose to end their lives with dignity. The main advantage of the Death with Dignity Act is those who have a diagnosis of terminal illness or in hopeless intractable pain is that they are given a prescription of lethal cocktail of drugs (barbiturates) while they still control their cognitive faculties and haven’t deteriorated physically and mentally to the point where they are no longer capable of self administering their own death.

Despite Kevorkian’s moral crusade and Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act this very important issue hasn’t received the attention it deserves.

Michael Ragland has been a national activist (protesting research on subjects who can’t give informed consent and publicly voicing concerns about the impact of President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health and opposing gratuitous violence on the Internet. In Prince William County he has been an activist successfully opposing the sale of an independent hospital to a national managed care conglomerate, successfully opposing a managed care reorganization of the local Community Services Board, successfully opposing a developer’s highway which would have stretched from Occoquan to Quantico along the Potomac River and opposing the rezoning of the Cherry Hill peninsula.


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