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Should You Have the Right to Die?


Brittany Maynard and Dan Diaz at their wedding in this photograph provided by Compassion & Choices.

Brittany Maynard and Dan Diaz at their wedding in this photograph provided by Compassion & Choices.

The topics of euthanasia and assisted suicide are getting a lot of media attention recently. Euthanasia means killing someone who is very sick to prevent more suffering. Assisted suicide is less direct. It is when one person helps another person kill him or herself.

The topics have been in the news following the death of a young, terminally-ill woman in Oregon. Doctors told Brittany Maynard she had cancer in her brain and would live only several more months. But Ms. Maynard did not die from cancer. She died from drugs her doctor gave her so she could end her life.

Ms. Maynard had publicly spoken about her plan to kill herself. In a piece on the CNN website, she wrote that she wanted to die before the cancer and treatment for it “destroyed the time she had left.” She was dying, she argued, and she wanted to do so on her terms.

Ms. Maynard said she would not make the choice of what she called “death with dignity” for anyone else. So, she argued, why would others have the right to say she did not deserve that choice?

Ms. Maynard took action on November 1. She was 29 years old.

In the 10 months between her diagnosis and death, Ms. Maynard campaigned for laws to permit physician assisted suicide across America. Oregon is one of only four U.S states to permit doctor, or physician, assisted suicide.

However, last week the New Jersey State Assembly passed legislation to permit physician assisted suicide. If the Senate passes the legislation, and Governor Chris Christie signs it, New Jersey will become the fifth U.S. state to permit the practice.

The others are Montana, Vermont and Washington. The remaining 46 U.S. states consider the activity illegal.

A few countries around the world permit assisted suicide, including Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Many other governments with laws against the practice refuse to prosecute cases.

American attitudes

In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported on American attitudes toward euthanasia and assisted suicide. The center found that the majority -- more than 60 percent -- of Americans believe people suffering from severe pain with no hope for improvement have a moral right to end their lives.

However, Pew researchers found that the issue of physician assisted suicide is more sharply divided. Pew said 49 percent of Americans oppose laws that permit doctors to provide drugs for patients to end their lives.

Debate about the right to die

The debate in the U.S. about the right to die is not new. In the 1990s a doctor in Oregon made physician assisted suicide a hotly debated subject.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian poses with his "suicide machine"

Dr. Jack Kevorkian poses with his "suicide machine"

Jack Kevorkian invented a suicide machine to help deathly sick patients end their lives. Dr. Kevorkian helped more than 100 patients kill themselves. He was found guilty of murder in connection with one of them and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Should doctors help patients kill themselves?

Physician assisted suicide is even noted in the ancient Hippocratic Oath. The oath is a promise doctors traditionally take when they enter the field of medicine.

The original oath bans a doctor from administering poison in all cases. It also says a doctor will not advise someone to take such action.

The American Medical Association strongly opposes physician assisted suicide. It says the activity conflicts with a doctor’s position as healer.

The AMA says medical professionals should instead aggressively seek improvement in end of life care. It says doctors should work with those in other fields like counseling and hospice to make sure patients receive the physical and emotional treatments that can ease suffering.

Advocacy for and against the right to die

Compassion and Choices is a national non-profit group in America. It educates and advocates for end-of-life issues. It seeks rights for Americans to control their dying process.

Brittany Maynard made two videos for the group to use on its website. Barbara Coombs Lee is the Compassion and Choices president. She said the group would work “to carry on [Brittany Maynard’s] legacy of bringing end-of-life choice to all Americans.”

But many groups oppose laws to permit assisted suicide and euthanasia. Some, like the non-profit Not Dead Yet, are concerned that such laws could be used in a discriminatory way against the sick and disabled. The group notes examples like Terri Schiavo.

A supporter holds a large photo of Terri Schiavo in Pinellas Park, Fla. in 2005

A supporter holds a large photo of Terri Schiavo in Pinellas Park, Fla. in 2005

Terri Schiavo suffered severe brain damage following cardiac arrest in 1990. She entered what doctors call a “permanent vegetative state.” In other words, a person seems to be awake but is not conscious.

Ms. Schiavo’s husband and her parents fought about whether she should be kept alive by a feeding tube. The public and press argued over the issue as well. The case was so hotly debated that even then-President­­­ George W. Bush got involved. He signed a law aimed at keeping Ms. Schiavo alive.

In 2005, Michael Schiavo won the right to speak for his wife. Her feeding tube was removed. Terri Schiavo died 13 days later.

The case of Terri Schiavo continues to influence opinion on end-of-life issues. The case of Brittany Maynard likely will as well.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Caty Weaver wrote this story for Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

terminal – adj. causing death eventually : leading finally to death

dignity – n. a way of appearing or behaving that suggests seriousness and self-control

diagnose – v. to recognize (a disease, illness, etc.) by examining someone

prosecute – v. to hold a trial against a person who is accused of a crime to see if that person is guilty

attitude – n. the way you think and feel about someone or something

Now it’s your turn to use these Words in This Story. In the comments section, write a sentence using one of these words and we will provide feedback on your use of vocabulary and grammar.

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