“The 360” shows you various perspectives on the most important stories and debates of the day.
What is going on
Three decades ago, it became the face of the incredibly controversial debate over medically assisted death. Dubbed “Dr. Death” in the media, he claimed to have helped at least 130 patients die before being convicted of manslaughter in 1998.
Kevorkian died in 2011, but the debate over whether it should be legal for doctors to help people end their lives is far from settled. Today, medical aid allows for assisted suicide – a process by which life-ending drugs are dispensed to patients, who self-administer the dose. The laws vary, but they generally state that individuals must have a terminal illness and a prognosis of less than six months to live to qualify. Only two states allow medical-assisted suicide for nonresidents.
While the US is one of the worst countries to legalize what is often referred to as medical assisted dying (MAID), our laws are significantly more restrictive than those in some of our peer countries. For example, America is the only country that requires a terminal diagnosis. All others allow people living with an incurable disease that causes them “unbearable pain” to choose medically administered death. Most allow for both assisted suicide and euthanasia, where doctors administer life-ending drugs directly. Several also allow MAID for people with severe mental illness and allow individuals to submit “advance requests” in cases where they are expected to become unable to make their own decisions in the future, such as with dementia .
In recent years, Canada has become the place with the highest number of medically assisted deaths in the world. There were more than cases in Canada in 2021. That’s more than the number of assisted suicides estimated to have occurred in the US since Oregon became the first state to legalize the practice in 1997.
Why there is discussion
At its most basic level, the debate over medically assisted death boils down to morality. Either you believe it is categorically wrong for a doctor to help someone end their life, or you believe, like almost, that there are cases where people should be given the “right to die” on their own terms.
The issue becomes much more complicated when it comes to defining what those cases should be and what criteria people must meet before being allowed to opt for a medically assisted death.
Advocates for expanding MAID’s capabilities say limiting access to only terminally ill patients leaves countless people suffering needlessly and denies them the opportunity to choose a peaceful, pain-free death. They argue that a truly compassionate society would trust individuals to make their own choices, rather than insisting that they die in a way that satisfies others’ sense of right and wrong.
But critics worry that more permissive assisted-death laws could lead to a “” system or create conditions where people are forced to make the choice to die when they may not need to. There is also concern that MAID could become a way for society to avoid the hassle and expense of caring for its most vulnerable members, including the , mentally ill and . Many critics point to disturbing reports from Canada — including a case where a patient’s family claims he was “” — as a sign of the slippery slope that can occur if there aren’t enough guardrails.
Supporters of medically assisted death hope to expand the practice to more parts of the country. Bills have been introduced over the past year that would legalize assisted suicide, though it’s unclear if any of them will become law.
It is inhumane to force people to suffer if they want to take a different path
“It is nothing short of cruel to prevent anyone from having any control in the most difficult hours as life draws to a close. Of course there must be safeguards. … But for those who choose to end their suffering and for the families who support their decision, the option of death with dignity must be available.” — Judy Kugel,
Assistance with death should only be available in very limited circumstances
“Is it really more humane to deny a miserable person pure assisted suicide than to allow it? Authorities have to say yes: We will not help you die because of your depression, poverty or unsuitable living conditions, for the same reason we will not remove your appendix if you have a broken leg, or prescribe lithium for a nasty case of psoriasis.” —Chris Selley,
The freedom to die should be treated as a basic human right
“The ability to end life is an important freedom. Our bodies are ours, not the government’s. We should have the power to decide whether we want to live, especially if we are in constant pain or suffering from a debilitating or fatal disease.” —Scott Shackleford,
The foundations of our humanity begin to crumble when life loses its value
“The idea that human rights include a right to self-destruct, the conceit that people in a state of terrible suffering and vulnerability are truly ‘free’ to make a choice that ends all choice, the idea that a profession as a physician death should include its series of treatments – these are inherently destructive ideas. — Ross Douthat,
Canada has shown how dangerous MAID can be for vulnerable people
“The introduction of euthanasia in Canada has become the smoothest of all slippery slopes. Of course, the expansion of assisted suicide laws in the US will pose the same troubling problems. … Canadians have the right to die, but do they have the right to live despite medical problems?” —Valerie Hudson,
We don’t have to choose between protecting the vulnerable or giving people the right to die with dignity
“Let’s be clear: it will always be complicated to find the right balance between protecting patients and helping them die. Complicated but achievable. It should absolutely be possible to write laws that protect older, sick, disabled and otherwise vulnerable people from manipulation or coercion, while still empowering competent adults to alleviate unbearable suffering or incurable illness.” — Nicholas Goldberg,
The worst case scenario is a world where people can choose to die at any time for any reason
“The ultimate goal – or at least the consequence – of allowing assisted suicide/euthanasia is death on demand.” — Wesley J. Smith,
By banning MAID, people are left all alone to face death and often choose it
“People facing the grim, painful finality of their lives are committing suicide right now, many with no doctor on hand to ease their suffering – or talk them out of it. Patients cannot be the primary decision maker on end-of-life options if the government refuses to allow the existence of a decision. Patients cannot consult doctors or loved ones about their end-of-life preferences if the consultation itself is illegal.” —David Colborne,
Current limits are so restrictive that the “right to die” largely exists only on paper
“The few places in the United States where assisted suicide is allowed impose restrictions so demanding that it is difficult for people in the state, and often nearly impossible for someone outside of the state, to comply.” — Pamela Paul,
Sometimes life is no better than death
“The idea that any life is better than no life at all is largely unexplored and unchallenged, especially by the young and healthy. … But isn’t the principle itself – life at all costs – due for a reappraisal that pays more attention to the wishes of the individual? Wouldn’t greater control over the time, place, and circumstances of our death alleviate some of our fear of dying, if not of death itself? —John M. Crisp,
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