That was a clip from “You Don’t know Jack,” the 2010 HBO movie about Jack Kevorkian, known to some as “Dr. Death.” Kevorkian was one of the first right-to-die activists to really publicize the issue of doctor assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Currently, four states allow doctor assisted suicide in the case of terminal patients. Those states are Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Vermont.
Last year, the right to die was back in the spot light. In the summer and fall of 2014, a dramatic case for the “right to die” played out in the media. The story of Californian Brittany Maynard, a beautiful 29 year old woman with an aggressive form of terminal brain cancer, astrocytoma, who chose to move to Oregon where she could legally obtain a doctor’s assistance in ending her life when she decided the time had come. Maynard died by her own choice on November first last year.
This February, an Anchorage law maker introduced a bill to the Alaska legislature that aims to make Alaska the fifth state to allow its citizens the “right to die.” House Bill 99, which is modeled after Oregon’s 20-year-old Death with Dignity law, proposes to legalize “the voluntary termination of life by terminally ill individuals,” with the assistance of medication proscribed by a doctor.
According to a recent Health Day/ Harris poll , 74 percent of American adults believe that terminally ill patients who are in great pain should have the right to end their lives and only 14 percent opposed the right.
The originator of the Alaska bill, democratic Representative Harriet Drummond, explains the legislation on her website. She writes that the bill “would allow terminally ill patients to ease their suffering and hasten an inevitable and certain death. House Bill 99 preserves a person’s right to live, and die, on their own terms according to their own desires and beliefs… A lot of time has been spent making sure that it cannot be abused, and that individuals cannot be coerced in any way.”
The topic is a controversial one. While opponents argue both against the morality of such a law and against the possibility of abuse, advocates offer up evidence for the humanity of being allowed to chose to terminate an unbearable existence.
To offer some insight on the issue, I spoke with a long-time Anchorage doctor, Steven Meniker. Meniker, a recently retired general surgeon, practiced medicine in Anchorage for nearly forty years. He told me he cared for thousands of people during the course of his practice, and hundreds of terminal patients suffering from cancer and other serious diseases. I asked Meniker how he felt about the proposed legislation as a doctor.
Meniker said that being a doctor isn’t just about saving lives.
According to Meniker, medicine can make a dying person comfortable, even when he or she would otherwise be in pain. The catch is that while that individual may not be feeling any pain, he or she won’t be conscious or functional, either. For some people, Mekiker says, that is just not an acceptable way to live the last weeks or months of their lives.
But, he explains, those people are in the severe minority.
I asked Meniker if, as a doctor, he felt there was a conflict between the principle of “do no harm” and providing doctor assisted care in ending someone’s life. He says he doesn’t think that there is. According to Meniker, sometime a doctor is doing more harm by forcing someone to continue suffering. He says that doctors of terminally ill patients need to have an honest discussion about the costs and benefits of their treatment options. Some doctors won’t touch assisted suicide, he says, and that’s an individual choice. Meniker also explained that not all situations are clear cut cases, but that he thinks safe guards will be in place to protect patients.
That was Doctor Steven Meniker speaking about the recently proposed Right to Die Bill in the Alaska legislature.