THE BLOG

In the Cause(s) of Justice

02/20/2014 03:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2014

There is cautious but pervasive optimism among death-with-dignity supporters these days. And since this end-of-life choice is one of the causes that consumes much of my time and energies, I am cautiously, optimistically celebrating.

There are still all those other causes. Primarily reproductive rights, a cause that's losing ground faster than the turf above a new fracking lease. Or interfaith understanding? Tiny little wins need to be celebrated fast before somebody starts killing everyone else over a tiny little difference in whose god says what. And assorted other justice issues -- wishing for people to marry whomever they darned well choose, or supporting the right to enjoy a latte without having to worry about who is nearby exercising his right to bear (concealed) arms.

In light of oft-discouraging news from most of the above, it is a joy to celebrate ongoing progress in the realm of compassionate dying:

Barbara Mancini, a loving daughter and nurse who helped her 93-year-old, terminally ill-father, Joe Yourshaw, complete his wish to hasten his dying, was freed a few days ago by a Schuylkill County, PA judge exactly one year after her father's death. She had been charged with assisted suicide. If there ever were an egregious miscarriage of justice on many levels it was the Mancini case. Joe Yourshaw had designated his daughter his medical power of attorney to ensure that his wishes would be honored. After she did so -- handing him a partially filled bottle of prescribed morphine at his request -- he was found "unresponsive" by a hospice nurse. Despite his specific instructions to the contrary 911 was called, he was taken to a hospital and revived. Angry, to say the least. He lived for another four days. The Mancini family is faced with legal fees in excess of $100,000.

Barbara Mancini's victory is a victory for every person yet to die. It's a victory for individual autonomy, compassionate dying and human rights.

On a broader scale, the number of states in which it is legal to ask your physician for help in ending a terminal illness is rapidly growing. A decade ago, this was true only in Oregon, which has been demonstrating that such a law can work, effectively and without abuse, since 1994. In recent years Washington, Montana and Vermont have joined those good ranks, with Hawaii still strengthening its patient-protection rights.

And now, New Mexico. That state's Second District Court ruled in January that a 1963 state law against "assisted suicide" cannot be used to prosecute physicians who prescribe medication for terminally-ill patients choosing to die with dignity. Medical practitioners in Bernalillo county (New Mexico's most populous) are immediately protected; if it is affirmed by the state's Supreme Court the ruling will apply across New Mexico.

Aggressive plans to legalize death with dignity are underway in several other states. Most supporters -- this writer included -- believe it will only take a few more until the movement for compassion, autonomy and justice at life's end becomes a right to everyone in the U.S.

Now... about those other causes: reproductive justice, interfaith respect and understanding, world peace. Why not?