Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Death

July of 2014 brought with it arguably one of the most widespread symbolic displays of humanitarian support in American history. That summer, it was nearly impossible for anyone with internet access to ignore the hundreds of videos showing people voluntarily dumping ice-water onto themselves.  Beginning in the Greater New York area, the Ice Bucket Challenge quickly spread to the rest of the United States and then other parts of the world. Just one month after its debut, the fad had become so popular that celebrities, entire marching bands, and even then-President Barack Obama had all taken part in this effort to show support for sufferers of ALS.


Supporting the ill is undoubtedly an honorable cause, but many are not fully aware of the severity of the disease to which this popular culture movement was dedicated.  Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a condition in which the neurons that control our body’s movements are slowly destroyed. Progression of ALS leads to paralysis and premature death. It is a terminal illness that guarantees a slow, painful, and humiliating demise for all its victims.


Even before its symptoms begin to appear, the fear that comes with an ALS diagnosis is insurmountable. When the meaning of “living” changes to simply existing in a vegetative state, the prospect of survival becomes no less grim than that of death.  If a patient is guaranteed a premature death, why should they have to endure this long, torturous progression?


In 1999, 52-year old Thomas Youk faced this very question. Diagnosed with ALS, Youk had the option of either torturously suffering through the disease or ending his life. Youk, fully aware of the implications of his diagnosis, rationally chose the latter. It was in this same year that Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a renowned Michigan pathologist, had agreed to supervise the death of Thomas Youk so that he would die without the atrocious consequences of an unwinnable fight against ALS. To cure Youk of a horribly protracted demise, Dr. Kevorkian pioneered a solution that few doctors had acknowledged at the time – euthanasia.


‘Dr. Death,’ as Kevorkian came to be known by the popular media, had spearheaded the idea of physician-assisted suicide as an option for terminally ill patients during the latter part of the 20th century. Understanding that there was no other medical solution to terminal illness, he believed that death was the only reasonable alternative to palliative care treatment. By allowing for “dignified death,” Kevorkian was protecting the right to die and sparing patients from the torture and humiliation that would surely follow from the prolongation of life. In utilizing euthanasia, he was also providing the only medical cure for active death.


Despite his notoriety, Kevorkian was not the first to consider medically-induced death as a cure for terminal illness. Many other physicians have also assisted in patient suicides but, unlike Dr. Death, they’ve only done so indirectly. Kevorkian, having closely supervised his patients and developed technology that would make the process more efficient, was merely the first to openly and directly assist his terminally ill patients. What separated Dr. Jack Kevorkian from his colleagues was not necessarily his desire to help, but his belief that forcing a patient to suffer when there another solution existed was fundamentally unethical.


Kevorkian’s counterparts didn’t share his moral conviction. Instead, they questioned the legality of his decisions: does a patient have the right to ask for this type of help from a physician?


In the United States, there is no federal law guaranteeing a person’s right to die in the medical context. Although the Supreme Court has debated the constitutionality of physicians deliberately withholding medical care, decisions regarding physician-assisted suicide have traditionally been left to the states as established in the Tenth Amendment. Even today, only seven jurisdictions permit physician-assisted suicide: California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.


Like physician-assisted suicide, the death penalty also concerns state regulation over the life and death of an individual. A key difference, however, is the voluntary nature of the former case that certainly does not exist in the latter one.  Additionally, there are currently 31 states that employ the death penalty in some capacity, making its legality far more widespread than euthanasia’s. Three states – Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah – have legalized not just one, but at least five methods for ending the lives of those sentenced to death. And, although rare, certain states even allow inmates to choose their desired method of execution.


The prevalence of the death penalty presents an important question for proponents of  physician-assisted suicide: Why should a state authorize assisted deaths for convicted felons, but ban them for innocent victims of crippling terminal illnesses?


The inability of individual states to maintain a consistent policy regarding the ending of a person’s life, whether for punishment of a crime or terminal illness, critically complicates the already difficult ethical debate in which legalization of euthanasia is embroiled. In a sense, many states have sent an abhorrent message to their constituents: if someone murders innocent people, then the state will wholeheartedly support the murder of the perpetrator to heal the emotional wounds of the victims’ loved ones; however, if an innocent person is unfortunately inflicted with the most horrid of conditions, then the state will not support them or their loved ones by allowing them a simple and peaceful death. Rather, the innocent must die in the most humiliating way possible – either through a prolonged demise or through independent suicide.


Thus, the states’ collective negligence towards euthanasia can only be combated in one way:  the federal government must be the one to ensure the right of some of its most agonized people to a willful, dignified death.


Founded upon the seemingly unfaltering principles of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”, it only follows that this nation affords its weakest citizens the right to end their gruesome torture. The American people’s continued adherence to mendacious structures and policies that promote the suffering of citizens is duplicitous to the very rights this country esteems. There is no life in imminent death; no liberty in prohibition; and no happiness in pain. It is grossly hypocritical for a society that stands by the words “Give me liberty or give me death” to deny an individual's liberty to choose death.


As a people that thrive on the unprecedented protections set forth by our forefathers, we must unconditionally expand the protections of these rights to every fellow American – in sickness or in health. It may be a long legislative road or a tedious judicial fight, but it is a necessary step to ensure that we may decide our own fates in every aspect of our lives.