A year ago, I lost my 36-year-old husband to cancer. In the first few months after his death, I often felt lost without the heroic man I fell in love with 14 years earlier. But in our last few weeks together, I promised J.J. that I would keep sharing our story and carrying on his work advocating for better end-of-life care for terminal patients.
J.J. was a volunteer fireman, a Marine Corps war veteran, and a New York public servant under Govs. Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson. Then, after he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2014, J.J. dedicated his final days to fighting the legalization and social acceptance of assisted suicide.
This wasn’t an issue either of us would have become involved with prior to J.J.’s terminal diagnosis, but his illness gave us firsthand insights into how assisted suicide endangers those who are most vulnerable.
When a seizure sent J.J. to the hospital in May 2014, he was told that he had glioblastoma multiforme, the deadliest form of brain cancer. The neurosurgeon said that it was inoperable and that he likely had only four months left to live. Three doctors told us there was nothing we could do. We were told to go home and enjoy the little time we had left together.
Thankfully, we didn’t listen to those doctors, and J.J. had success with standard and experimental treatments. But he also realized that not everyone has the kind of support that he did, from family, friends and very good doctors. And even though J.J. was loved and supported, he suffered from periods of depression in his first few months of treatment.
He later told us that if he had assisted-suicide pills with him in those darkest moments, he would have been very much tempted to take them.
Then, in J.J.’s final weeks, we saw how the disabled are treated differently, how their lives are too easily dismissed as inconvenient, which is especially dangerous when assisted suicide becomes a legal medical treatment.
Assisted suicide injects governmental pressure and profit-driven insurance decisions into everyone’s end-of-life care. When that happens, death becomes the cheapest form of “treatment.”
Almost two dozen states considered assisted-suicide bills this past year. It’s already allowed in seven states and the District of Columbia, and various forms of assisted suicide and euthanasia are also legally available in Europe, as well.
If he were still with us, J.J. would continue to tell us that assisted suicide is bad public policy. He would warn legislators and voters not to focus on the individual patient when considering this legislation. Instead, consider the many vulnerable people who will lose all hope and be put at risk when suicide becomes a medical treatment.
Ultimately, legalizing assisted suicide results in less choice for patients through external pressures, coercion, mistakes and abuse. In Europe, for example, the expansion of assisted suicide has resulted in ever more groups of patients becoming eligible for the “treatment,” including youth and the non-terminally ill.
Proponents insist that assisted suicide is only for last-resort scenarios, when there are only weeks or days left and unbearable pain. But physical pain isn’t among the top five reasons patients in Oregon — the first state to legalize assisted suicide, in 1997 — request death by doctor.
In reality, assisted suicide is less about ending a patient’s suffering than it is about ending society’s care. There is a lot we can do to improve care at the end of life for terminal patients, and assisted suicide shouldn’t be one of them.
That’s why, even as he took to the public square to speak out against death by doctor, J.J. also fought for better access to hospice and palliative care.
I have no doubt that J.J. would have supported bills like the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act, which was introduced in Congress last year.
This bipartisan measure helps Americans with advanced illness have better access to palliative care. It increases the number of health-care professionals trained in palliative care, expands national funding for research in palliative care and develops a national educational campaign to inform Americans, including physicians, many of whom are unaware of the benefits of palliative care.
J.J. was convinced that the most vulnerable Americans need support, not poisonous pills and needles. A year after his death, it is vital that Americans continue to hear his message.
Kristen Hanson is the community-relations advocate for the Patients Rights Action Fund.
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