Political candidates should debate the right to die [Commentary]

One of the things that delights me in the people I love is their differences.  Each of my beloved family members behaved differently in life, so naturally each of them chose to die in their own way. 

My dad, Alex Fraser, wanted control over the time and place of his death.  As his Parkinson's worsened, sometime after his 90th birthday, he decided to take action.  His health had been declining for some time, his tremor made it hard to eat, his voice was just a whisper, and even rolling over in bed was very hard.  But the final blow, the reason he decided to take his life, was that he was falling — falling often — and harder each time. 

Dad's deepest fear was that he would fall, break something and have to move out of his own home where he could control the time and means of his death, and into a nursing home where the staff would feel it was their duty to keep him alive no matter how much he suffered or wanted to die.  The last eight months of his life were an agony of waiting for me, wondering every day if he'd fall and having all his plans go awry.

Finally, Dad decided he had taken his last fall and that he would end his life on his terms.  He took the 19 pills that he had slowly stashed away, and doubtless went to sleep believing he would indeed die peacefully in his bed.  Unfortunately, having taken prescription painkillers for some time before that night, he awoke from his intentional overdose.  He then tried to slit his wrists, but due to his tremor, he failed at that, too.  When he'd been out of touch for long enough, we were so worried about my dad, that my husband and I went to his house check up on him.

We found him despondent over his dual failures (as he saw them) and ready to do what he needed to do at any price.  Despite knowing that there would be a police investigation, Dad strongly intimated that he would shoot himself when we left.  We let him know we loved him and then had to say good-by.  To stay would put us at risk of murder charges. 

We should have been able to be with him, and he surely shouldn't have had to shoot himself alone, rather than face a death that he felt was worse. Dad should have been able to die at his own hand, to take prescription medication to end his dying process once it became unbearable. That's the choice that terminally ill, mentally competent adults are authorized to make in five other states: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico. 

It doesn't really matter what my choice would be at the end of my life.  Nor what yours would be.  What matters is that each of us in sound mind and failing body should be able to choose the way that we want to die. The law should allow us that final dignity, but here in Maryland, it doesn't. 

Fortunately, there is hope that we can change the law. The Democratic nominee for governor, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, commented in a recent survey of statewide candidates conducted by the Maryland Catholic Conference on five key issues, including death with dignity, that: "As a delegate I voted against prohibiting [death with dignity]." The Republican nominee for governor, Larry Hogan, failed to complete the survey, so we do not know his position on the issue, but voters deserve to know what it is before the gubernatorial debates this fall, the first of which is scheduled for Oct. 7.

No one should feel as my father did that the only option is to die alone in a violent fashion.

Alexa Fraser lives in Rockville, Maryland, and is a supporter of the nation's leading end-of-life choice advocacy organization, Compassion & Choices (www.compassionandchoices.org). Her email is alexa@iobst.com.


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