Considering Your Options When Lethal Injection Is Not Available

[pullquote] I do encourage everyone to develop a vision of their death, knowledge of their illnesses, acceptance of the inevitable, an appreciation for palliative care, and an understanding of the end-of-life options available in their jurisdiction. [/pullquote]

Physician Sam Harrington offers his own ranking of end-of-life options that hasten death in order to reduce suffering from easiest to most difficult. Harrington lends a critical eye to physician-assisted suicide that is legal in Canada and extends opinionated consideration of the choices American citizens have at the end of their lives. Referring to the highly publicized story of John Shields, a terminally ill Canadian man who recently chose to die through means of lethal injection, Harrington addresses the reality that the majority of Americans do not have such an option. But, Harrington explains that not having this option may not be such a bad thing.

The medical aid in dying law, often referred to as Death with Dignity, is legal in 6 states: California, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont and in the District of Columbia. Medical aid in dying is the prescription by a physician for a lethal dose of medication that absolutely must be self-administered. Harrington explains that these lethal doses of medication prescribed through the medical aid in dying law (which only applies to people deemed to be in their last 6 months of life) are not risk-proof themselves. Vomiting, difficulty swallowing, and paradoxical reactions are all in the realm of possibility. Medical aid in dying may not always be as clean and simple so it is important for advocates and those considering their options to remember other methods available to reduce suffering and hasten death at the end of life.

Harrington goes into some detail regarding withholding care; such as manual feedings, antibiotics administration, and ventilation. These must all be considered when creating an advanced directive because often those decisions otherwise fall on the shoulders of loved ones. However, VSED (Voluntarily Stopping Eating & Drinking) is one way of withholding care made as an alert, competent person. It is the choice to stop eating and drinking in order for the body to naturally, organically die. Harrington points out that VSED is an “actively passive step to hasten death that everyone should be aware of”. In contrast to medical aid in dying, Harrington says VSED  “is effective, fast enough to be tolerable, and slow enough to vanquish any familial concerns about an irretrievably impulsive decision sometimes associated with physician-assisted suicide.”

Harrington explores the nuances of the subject but ends by emphasizing what is most important: choice.

“I do not presume to tell you how each individual patient should parse his or her own decision. I do encourage everyone to develop a vision of their death, knowledge of their illnesses, acceptance of the inevitable, an appreciation for palliative care, and an understanding of the end-of-life options available in their jurisdiction. Then they can maximize control of their death.”