By Chris Haring

In an 18-minute keynote speech, Elena Constantinou of Cyprus explained what medical aid in dying is and why her country should legalize Death with Dignity.

When, in September 2023, Elena Constantinou’s cancer-stricken father expressed the desire to end his unbearable (and worsening) pain and suffering, she and his doctors were legally unable to abide by his wishes.

The pro-physician-assisted death position is emotional and highly compelling

As she explains in her award-winning video keynote speech – granted first place in the recent Global Leadership Impact Summit’s Ultimate Global Keynote Challenge – her country of Cyprus is one of the 90% in the world where physician-assisted death remains illegal. 

Constantinou shares why she chose the right to die as the topic for her submission. Notably, it’s timely – a Death with Dignity law currently sits on the docket in her country’s Parliament. 

Perhaps more importantly for her, however, it was what she witnessed and felt on and after the day when her father desperately asked her to “switch [him] off,” she said. Instead of having the dignity and autonomy that comes with getting to choose how and when one dies, her father suffered until his “heart stopped beating suddenly one day,” leaving him to die “alone in the hospital” – and his daughter “in a state of hopelessness,” she added.

Misconceptions and misinformation often fuel opposition to medical aid in dying

There was a time, she said, when she “would have been neutral or maybe even against” the idea of a loved one considering assisted death. However, as with so many aid-in-dying champions, after her experience and “a period of mourning,” she shifted her focus to educating herself about, and ultimately becoming an advocate for, Death with Dignity.

Among the things she’s learned, Constantinou said, is that despite the all-too-common misconception, assisted dying and euthanasia are not the same. Moreover, suicide – the traumatic act of (often violently) taking one’s own life – has too often been the last resort of gravely ill patients without access to aid in dying who are desperate to end their suffering. In fact, not only is it inaccurate, but it is often considered offensive to use such terms and their synonyms when talking about physician-assisted death.

Parallel diagnoses underscore the need for autonomy when choosing end-of-life options

Towards the latter half of her video, Constantinou pointed us toward the stories of two women who were both diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and, in partnership with Death with Dignity, were dedicated right-to-die advocates through the final weeks of their lives. Tragically, because of the differences in the availability of medical aid in dying to each of them, their deaths were very different:

Laura Johannes of Massachusetts was not legally permitted to access physician-assisted death in her home state. As such, days before she died, she recorded a powerful video lamenting her lack of choices as she neared her life’s end.

Alternatively, Ann Keller of Texas could travel to Oregon as one of the first out-of-state residents to take advantage of the then-recent expansion of its Death with Dignity Act. As Constantinou says, Keller expressed great relief knowing she had control over how she and her family would experience her final days.

Ultimately, Constantinou asserts that despite attempts by opponents of the right-to-die movement to frame the ongoing debate as “an ethical dilemma about choosing death over life,” that is simply not true. Rather, as she eloquently puts it, medical aid in dying is “about the human right of patients to choose peace over fear” and “easing their pain and the trauma on their loved ones” when they know they are approaching their life’s end.

Watch a video of Elena’s passionate and compelling speech below:

By: Elena Constantinou
Published: February 7, 2024