05/30/2013 08:40 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

My Right to Die

In the New York Times obituary columns the death in Belgium of the renowned biochemist Dr. Christian de Duve was reported. He was in his mid-nineties and in ill-health. His wife had predeceased him. After a rich and productive life, with fundamental contributions to the understanding of the origins of life, he decided that it was time for him to go. As euthanasia is legal in Belgium, he informed his sons and had two medical doctors aid him in achieving a swift and painless death. In doing so he not only spared himself pain that he no longer wished to suffer; he freed up medical resources for others.

I am opposed to a universal law in the United States in favor of euthanasia as there are many of my fellow citizens whose religious or other beliefs would be severely contravened. A universal law is one matter, but a restrictive law giving any citizen of the United States the right to choose to opt for euthanasia when the time comes is both a matter of individual political and religious freedom. I want my freedom of choice. I do not wish to challenge anyone's religious freedom. I do not wish to have the religious views of others impinge on my life.

There are many problems such as having to show that a fateful decision is not taken under duress or with the individual not mentally capable of doing so. I propose that we consider legislation that states that any individual who wishes to contemplate euthanasia be required to sign a document kept, for instance, at a local hospital or special office of HEW. This document would not be legally binding if the individual wished to exercise it in less than two years after signing. This avoids the argument that it was a less-than-rational decision made in the immediate contemplation of an imminent death.

I am 87 years old and have a (non-immediately life-threatening) incurable disease for 14 years. It is known as Inclusion Body Myositis (IBM). It destroys the smooth muscles in the arms and legs and leaves many in wheelchairs or bedridden for the rest of their lives. I have every intention of living as long as I can providing that I can still work productively and do not pose too great a burden to my family and my society.

By profession I am an economist and am well aware of the enormous burden of medical costs in this society. Furthermore (even taking into account how hospitals fudge the books) I am also aware of the enormous costs involved in providing the medical procedures to support the last month or two of life. A story published by CBS reported that Medicare paid $55 billion in 2009 just for doctor and hospital bills during the last two months of patients' lives.

This note is not directed at offering scare statistics. Formal studies are easily available in our health system. It is a plea to Congress to stop adopting an either or solution to an important problem in human dignity. Those of us who wish to choose to die with dignity, little pain and minimal cost to our society should be permitted to pursue their choice with the benefits from doing so flowing back to all of our society. This can and should be done without thrusting our decision on others who do not wish to make this choice.