The recent arrest of four "Final Exit Network" members - one in Baltimore - in connection with the death of a 58-year-old Georgia man again focuses attention on the painful issue of assisted suicide. Surely we all can agree that dying with a helium-filled plastic bag tied over your head is no way to honor the human dignity in each of us. Society should be able to come up with better choices than being in pain or killing yourself.
People rightly fear being seriously ill and in pain or alone in a hospital room surrounded by strangers. For too many, the uncertainty, slow physical decline and the worry of being a burden to their families lead to depression, and often hopelessness. The choice of a compassionate society should be to care for the person and to accompany him or her through the illness. It would not enlist "exit guides" or recruit medical personnel as executioners; instead, it would promote good pain management and work to see that all health care providers honor the wishes of the patient as expressed in an advance directive, or "living will."
Fortunately, Maryland is one of 40 states that encourage citizens to clearly state their health care wishes in their own words and to designate the person who will make their health care decisions if they cannot speak for themselves. Officials including Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Attorney General J. Joseph Curren Jr. have promoted the use of advance directives that are easy to understand and use, and that address comfort, dignity and the personal, family and spiritual issues that people say matter most. Some 370 Maryland community organizations have become part of a growing national movement aimed at empowering health care consumers through advance directives.
The overarching goal must be to improve the way we care for those with serious illness and those in the twilight and shadows of life - the elderly, the disabled, the poor and those who are very sick. This could be accomplished through expansion of home care services; earlier hospice referral for those near the end of life; more faith-based and community projects serving those who are isolated; better pain management training in medical schools; and more attention given to the needs of non-English-speaking ethnic and cultural groups. Steps like these - rather than enabling suicide - represent the truly compassionate choice.
As our nation's lawmakers contemplate health care reform, we also should be mindful of the lessons learned in Oregon, where there are documented cases of efforts to control costs by funding suicide drugs instead of more costly treatment. Real health care reform would create a system that supports dignity, manages pain, provides access to quality palliative care, and unequivocally recognizes that each person in our society deserves something better than a lethal prescription.
Suicide is always a symptom of a problem; it should never be the solution to one.
Paul Malley is president of Aging with Dignity, a national nonprofit organization. His e-mail is email@example.com.