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Dying With Dignity

Who should have the ultimate say on when/how we die?

Life, like all things, eventually comes to an end. As we age, the realization, that no one gets out of life alive sinks in. Unfortunately for many, death will come as the result of a painful, incurable disease. Currently, in most states, doctors must watch a patient's body and brain inevitably decline until death mercifully comes.

Nurses and hospice workers are often asked to assist with death, and some comply with compassion for their patients, though they often do so in secrecy out of the fear of losing their jobs or facing criminal charges.

Liberty to think and decide what is best for your life is one of the greatest freedoms we have, yet there are many that do not want that option available when it is of the greatest importance at the end of life. When faced with a terminal illness and an agonizing death, who better to determine your quality of life, how much pain you can stand, how much more you wish to go on, than you?

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For many terminally ill patients, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was an answer to their prayers. Kevorkian gained worldwide attention for helping his dying patients, many wracked with tremendous pain and suffering, end their lives. He was with them at the end, and provided a means for patients to end their own life, hence the term “assisted suicide”.

Though patients and their families were grateful for his services and compassion, Kevorkian had staunch critics, who vehemently insisted he was playing God. Death, it seems, is still a taboo subject. A terminally ill patient, dying while wracked with chronic, never-ending pain, should not have to adhere to someone else's beliefs. In these cases, the morality of when to end your life is very personal, and should not be legislated by the government.

The illnesses of these patients left them as a mere shell, unable to care for themselves. They wanted to die with dignity and with whatever peace they could find. Simply, if a terminally ill patient is competent to make decisions and decides that he no longer wishes to go on, then we must give him the means and acceptance to die with dignity.

Though physician assisted suicide is against the law in most states, there is growing public support to legalize it. Oregon signed the Death with Dignity Act on October 27, 1997. Despite claims that things would spiral out of control and the law would be abused, this has not been the case. Since then, Washington and Vermont and have followed, and more states are considering a similar law.

The fear of death by a healthy young person should not be a factor in prohibiting a terminally ill patient from making a decision to end their life. These individuals should have the right to choose how to live and when to die. America fought to ensure freedom for all -- freedom for life and liberty. We need to fight for the freedom to die with dignity, as well.

Dale Archer, M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist and author of The New York Times bestseller, Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional.

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