Assisted suicide merits must be examined

Trigger warning: This piece contains discussion on assisted suicide.


Marijuana, same-sex marriage and abortion are just some of the controversial issues about which Americans frequently debate whether are not they should be legal. One that is discussed much less regularly, or at least less publicly, is euthanasia, the right to die. Euthanasia is legal in only the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, while assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Colombia, Albania, Japan and in the United States of Vermont, Oregon, Washington and Montana. The only difference between the two actions is “in assisted suicide, the patient is in complete control of the process that leads to death because he/she is the person who performs the act of suicide,” while in euthanasia, one is “intentionally causing the death of a person, the motive being to benefit that person or protect him/her from further suffering” (Drexel, “Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide,” 9.5.91). There is no wondering why this issue poses a huge moral conflict as it seems gruesome for the willing death of a human being to be facilitated. Regardless, having the right to die can be extremely beneficial both physically and mentally for someone who is suffering.

At least in the United States, assisted suicide is only legal when the patient has a terminal illness and a limited time left to live, usually six months or less. The process comes with many rules and regulations, such as having to be a legal resident of the state, having witnesses and being deemed mentally healthy (other than having to deal with the overwhelming issue of their imminent death).

The most recently publicized case of assisted suicide is of Brittany Maynard. This 29-year-old woman from Northern California was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor and six months left to live. There are existing methods of treatment for her condition, but they would have altered her life negatively as a result of the extreme radiation. She thought about just letting her tumor run its course until she died, but this too would have meant having her family watch her die a painful death, including extreme pain and mental losses of many kinds. Because assisted suicide is not legal in the state of California, Brittany and her husband left their home and uprooted their lives to move to Oregon, proving how important this decision was to them.

Brittany was provided with a medication from a physician that she could take at any time she wanted in order to end her life. In a sort of farewell letter, which was shown on CNN, Brittany stated how just having the medication in her possession took a huge weight off of her shoulders because she knew that if at any time the suffering from her disease became too much to bear, she had the ability to end it. In this letter, she also posed the questions: “Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain? Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?”

I personally agree with Brittany that anyone should have the right to end their life if they are suffering greatly and don’t want to be subjected to the detrimental effects of whatever disease they may have. It is important to point out how different this process is from many other suicides we often hear about. In almost all cases, suicides are extremely emotional, sensitive, tragic and heartbreaking. Worst of all, in most cases of suicide, the victim is very lonely and without support. Also, it is possible that their decision was impulsive. Assisted suicide and euthanasia allow for the patient to be happy, despite their situation. They take time to contemplate their decision and can subsequently end their life in the supportive company of loved ones.

Some members of the opposition of the legalization of assisted suicide argue that legalization will harm others more than those who are terminally ill. For example, it is possible that an insurance company could deny coverage for an expensive chemotherapy treatment, but will support assisted suicide, which usually costs less than three hundred dollars. Therefore, people who do not necessarily have a limited time left to live will turn to ending their life. While this argument is valid, I think it reveals a bigger issue in our healthcare system rather than a disadvantage of assisted suicide and euthanasia.

In thinking about this issue, I began to wonder why it is less prevalent than discussions about issues like the legalization of marijuana or same-sex marriage. I think it is because the idea of suicide is so disturbing and worrisome to think about, and rightfully so. As the Internet and social media grow, suicide due to cyberbullying or online harassment are tremendously sensitive topics. Because of this, it is difficult for people to picture suicide in a positive light. Therefore, the benefits that assisted suicide can provide to victims of terminal illness are shrouded. I think it will take a very long time for legalization of assisted suicide to become widespread because in contrast to a matter such as same-sex marriage, it seems harmful rather than advantageous. However, if or when it does happen, it could prevent the mental and physical pain and discomfort of many.

—Sarah Sandler ’18 is currently undeclared.


  1. Quite well done. Interesting topic for a Vassar College Freshman to discuss.
    I appreciate this column.
    However, I must state that I am Sarah’s Grandfather.

  2. While I applaud Sarah’s taking on this topic, I must point out a critical flaw. Suicide is illegal in the US. Assisting a suicide is also illegal. In all 50 states. The practice she refers to in her piece is known as physician-aid-in dying or physician-assisted-death (PAD). The legislation in Oregon and Washington (where I live and practice medicine) has come to be known as “Death with Dignity” (DWD) The distinction is enormous for several reasons besides the obvious legal one. While assisting a suicide is a class C felony in WA, a physician writing a prescription for a patient to use PAD/DWD is immune from prosecution. But equally as important are the implications of the term “suicide.” Suicide is the recourse of someone who suffers from mental illness, usually depression. This is a treatable illness. This loss of life is a terrible tragedy for all involved. PAD (DWD) on the other hand occurs when a mentally competent but terminally ill person decides to have control over the time of their inevitable and imminent death. Their illness cannot be cured. They seek to avert tragedy in the form of a protracted death fraught with incompletely treated symptoms and loss of autonomy. Numerous professional societies have clearly stated that the term physician assisted suicide be dropped. This includes one that I am a member of which is the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. So, Sarah, and others, I urge you to take the next step in your education of this important issue (because it will be coming to other states besides the 5 where it is currently legal) and use the correct term when you talk about it and please also correct others when they use the incorrect terminology. I also urge you to learn more about the topic since it has been legal in OR for a very long time (since 1997). A great place to start is with the website of an organization called Compassion and Choices. Thanks for listening/reading and thanks for thinking about this topic. I agree with your grandfather that this is an interesting (and weighty) topic, one worthy of a Vassar freshman (said as the mom of a Vassar sophomore).

  3. “Suicide is illegal in the US”

    Well let the fucking po-po try to stop me. Fuck the police, and fuck all authority.


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