By Chris Haring
In a piece for WAMU/NPR’s 1A series, an assisted-death expert, a bioethicist, and a potential patient describe their outspoken support for the right to die.
As 2024 quickly approaches, promising perhaps the most active year of assisted-dying legislation in states from coast to coast, the aid-in-dying movement in the United States continues to gain momentum. Social conversations about the core values of dignity and autonomy at the end of life resonate more than ever with people across all demographics.
In a recent podcast segment titled How medical aid in dying is bringing autonomy to end-of-life decisions from WAMU/NPR, host Jenn White sheds light on how the practice is shaping decisions for individuals as they approach their final chapter.
Perspectives on aid in dying from those who might soon use it
The discussions, part of a broader series on aging in America, included perspectives from experts alongside a regular listener who shared her thoughts on the significance of having choices when confronted with the complexities of growing older and a potentially terminal diagnosis.
80-year-old Carolyn McInerney, who resides in South Carolina – where Death with Dignity is not legal – said she does not currently suffer from a life-threatening ailment and feels reasonably well after overcoming cancer some time ago. Still, the series has made her consider her future wishes. “I do not want to live when… life is not a joy anymore,” she said, if failing health compromised her independence.
Why language matters when discussing end-of-life options
Cultural anthropologist and author Anita Hannig offered insights into the linguistic and legal nuances surrounding end-of-life options, highlighting the differences in terminology between various practices and the challenges people who seek expanded end-of-life options face.
Her emphasis on the distinction between medical aid in dying and euthanasia/assisted suicide underscored the evolution of language and the crucial role it plays in framing discourse around these sensitive topics. Until recently, Hannig said, the English vocabulary lacked the nuanced language to refer to “the idea of intentional self-death,” resulting in an easy conflation of the two distinct practices.
It’s important to note that Hannig also reminds us that euthanasia is not legal in the U.S. Assisted suicide requires a physician to inject a patient with a life-ending medication, while medical aid in dying requires the patient to be able to ingest the substance by themselves.
Despite ongoing objections, aid in dying is safe and ethical
Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics, reiterated Hannig’s assertion that many accessibility barriers remain. He further explained that in the 1990s, upon the passage of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, there were reasonable concerns about assisted death and how, to whom, and why a medical professional would offer it.
However, Caplan says that in his experience, safeguards in aid-in-dying states have been more than sufficient: “I’ve never seen a convincing case of abuse,” he said, adding “people who criticize assisted dying come up with cases but they don’t bear out.”
Ultimately, the segment sheds light on what individuals face when contemplating crucial end-of-life decisions, demonstrating how comprehensive and empathetic conversations remain essential to maintaining dignity and autonomy for aging Americans.
Listen to the full interview here.
How medical aid in dying is bringing autonomy to end-of-life decisions
Hosted by: Jenn White
Produced by: Lauren Hamilton
Anita Hanning: Cultural anthropologist, death educator, freelance writer and the author of “The Day I Die: The Untold Story of Assisted Dying in America.”
Carolyn McInerney: 1A listener based in Charleston who’s been thinking about what physician-assisted death might mean for her aging journey.
Arthur Caplan: Professor of bioethics and founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
As the American population gets older, people begin to plan for what the end of their lives will look like.
It’s a conversation we explored on 1A earlier this year as a part of our ongoing coverage of aging in the United States.
And during that conversation, you had a lot of questions for us about physician-assisted death.
Physician-assisted death was first legalized in Oregon in 1994 and has since expanded to nine other states and Washington D.C.
Since then, more than 5,000 people who qualified have used it to shorten their lives. The overwhelming majority of them were cancer patients. That’s according to an analysis by Rutgers University.
Since the end of Roe, the debate around bodily autonomy has grown increasingly contentious. Especially this year, as several states have loosened their restrictions to make physician-assisted deaths more accessible for those who qualify.
Though its use is still relatively uncommon, the expansion of physician-assisted death as an end-of-life option has brought relief to some families and heightened concern among others.
How do we separate myths from facts when it comes to physician-assisted death? And what does the future of the practice look like in our country?