I support the whole idea of "death with dignity." Who wouldn't? What's the alternative? "Death Accompanied by Hysterical Freaking Out"? I am all for allowing people with terminal illness to choose, to a reasonable extent, the time, place, and means of their own demise.
Like-minded supporters of death with dignity, seeking to avoid the stigma associated with the term "assisted suicide," have adopted "aid in dying" as their preferred term of art. Not completely sure this is an improvement: "Assisted suicide," while blunter than some would like, has the advantage of accuracy; "aid in dying" sounds troublingly euphemistic. Jeffrey Dahmer provided plenty of "aid in dying."
More troubling, though, are people who push the limits of acceptable "assistance" in dying. An article in today's Times tells the story of Robert Mitton, a 58-year-old with a terminal heart condition. Although he would like to enlist assistance in his wish to end his own life before his health deteriorates to a point where he cannot take matters in his own hands, Mitton does not have that option: He lives in Colorado where, as in a majority of states, assisted suicide is illegal.
I am sympathetic to Mitton's plight, and I would not--do not--begrudge him his desire to avoid what by all accounts will be a lengthy and painful death. Here's the thing, though: Mitton's condition is not, strictly speaking, terminal. Unlike late-stage cancer patients or those slipping into irreversible dementia, Robert Mitton suffers from a heart condition that could be fixed through surgery: Indeed, he had a similar surgery in 1999 that successfully prolonged his life to this point--that's 15 years!
Now, in fairness, the surgery is extensive and painful. I can understand this man's desire not to undergo it. If he would rather dies than face that surgery, that is his absolute right. And, indeed, if he fears that the pain associated with his disease will become intolerable, he has the right to take matters into his own hands. I do not think, however, he has a reasonable right to expect medical professionals--whose job it is, after all, to extend life whenever possible--to take an active role in helping him end a life that, by all accounts, does not need to end so imminently.
I worry that stories like that of Robert Mitton will provide ammunition for those who passionately oppose the assisted suicide movement. Because what he seems to be asking for is not help in navigating the end stages of a terminal disease, but rather assistance in avoiding a potentially winnable battle to survive. His search for "death with dignity" looks uncomfortably like a simple death wish.