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Getting the Freedom to Die

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The issue of assisted suicide is in the public spotlight in Arizona following the sentence of probation for George Sanders, who admitted he shot his wife in response to her wishes after she was diagnosed with a gangrene infection that would require hospitalization and subsequent residence in a nursing home. After decades of suffering from a series of medical problems that eventually confined her to a wheelchair, court testimony revealed that Virginia "begged" her husband to end her life after the gangrene was discovered. People on both sides of this case have called it a "mercy killing," and the judge agreed with a plea bargain that resulted in two years of probation for her husband instead of jail time.

This situation could have been much worse. As horrifying and heartbreaking as it is to imagine, this mercy killing could have been a failure, resulting in unending suffering for his wife and possible jail time for George. In fact, had he not experienced a sympathetic judge, the husband could have been sentenced to twelve years in prison according to Kaitlin Funaro of the Global Post -- most likely the remainder of his life since he is 84 years old.

But it could have been much better as well. With end of life choice laws in place, Ms. Sanders might have experienced a pain-free, respectful end to her life, with a chance to bid farewell to loved ones and knowledge that her suffering was coming to an end. Sadly, there was no legal option for a death with dignity at the hands of medical professionals for Ms. Sanders. And the unnecessarily violent attempt to grant her wish resulted in several days of suffering before she succumbed to her gunshot wound.

This case and numerous others like it around the country, such as the tragic killing of a dying 83-year-old Pennsylvanian woman by her 86-year-old husband recently reported by Bertel King of The Inquisitor, shows why it's time for the federal government to recognize that there is clearly a need for a dignified method of assisted suicide in the U.S. We know that in the presence of the current ban, people's humanistic will to do what is right will lead them to break the law, sometimes in unfortunate ways such as that experienced by the Sanders.

If we as a country believe that people have personal autonomy over their own bodies, we should also recognize that it is everyone's independent choice as to when their life should end. As stated in A Plea for Beneficent Euthanasia, a 1970 letter signed by over two dozen Nobel Prize Laureates, scientists, and religious and humanist leaders, "... under certain conditions, a meaningful or significant life may no longer be possible. It is natural for human beings to hope that when that time comes they will be able to die peacefully and with dignity. When there is great distress and the end is inevitable, we advocate a humane effort to ease the suffering of ourselves and others, without moral or legal recriminations."

Because of laws currently in effect, including prohibitions in almost every state according to the Patient's Rights Council, freely choosing the manner and time of one's own death is not always possible. If George and Virginia had lived in a society that respected an end-of-life morality, a gun would not have even been contemplated. The option of a respected, painless, and quick death would certainly have been chosen instead.

We as a society need to gather the courage to face this issue directly and start the process of making death a dignified part of life. Medical technology has long since passed the point where a deliberate yet dignified end to someone's life can be delivered cleanly and simply. Not to make use of this new technology makes no sense and results in the unnecessary suffering of dying people and their friends and families.

We all desire for our loved ones to remain with us for as long as possible, and we have constructed a society with laws to punish people who don't see death as something to be fought at all costs. Leaving aside acts of self-defense, the choice of when to end one's life can only be ethically given to the one who holds it. Our laws and our social mores need to come to terms with voluntary death. If we don't, we are only going to have deal with more cases like that of George and Virginia Sanders, who could only choose among inferior and violent options as means to end their suffering.