Psychotherapy Enters the Assisted Suicide Debate

Untangling the Controversy Behind the Right-to-Die Movement

Jordan Magaziner

Ten years ago, after Jerry Dincin was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he went through a course of radiation therapy that left him cancer-free. But a few years later, he had a recurrence of prostate cancer and then, just six months ago, a routine test revealed that the disease had spread to his bones. His condition has forced him to think about death, a subject most of us try to avoid, especially while we’re still in good health.

Having received a poor prognosis and looking for support as he confronted the process of dying, Dincin, a retired psychologist, decided to join the Final Exit Network, an organization dedicated to the principle that the ultimate human right for the terminally ill is the right to choose the time and method of their death. “My relationship with the Final Exit Network is a tremendous comfort and relief to me,” explains Dincin, who’s now the president of the organization, “because I know that when my medical condition becomes too uncomfortable, I can decide that I don’t have to live with it. I’m not afraid of being dead; I’m afraid of the dying process, and the pain and suffering that goes with it.”

At a time when medical technology has become increasingly adept at keeping people alive, people like Jerry Dincin are voicing a feeling within a growing part of the population that the goal may not always be keeping a terminally ill person alive at all costs. As he puts it, “If you’re on a ventilator, you can live for a long time. But whether you want to should be put into that equation.”

Fighting for the Right to Die

In the United States, the organized movement promoting the right to die can be traced back to the first decade of the 20th century, when a bill to legalize euthanasia was proposed---and defeated---in Ohio. About 20 years later, the Euthanasia Society of America was founded to encourage public acceptance of the concept of providing a painless death to those with incurable diseases who wished one. In 1980, Derek Humphry created the Hemlock Society to educate the public about right-to-die issues and generate support for the idea that, under certain circumstances, it might be more humane to help people at the end of life bring about their own death peacefully and quickly. The Hemlock Society drafted a model law on euthanasia and assisted suicide that’s become the basis for the legislative efforts that have followed, and the society continues to be active in promoting public support for assisted suicide today, under the name Compassion & Choices.

The Legalities Here and Abroad

One of the arguments against legalizing physician-assisted suicide in America is the “slippery slope.” Many opponents fear that if hastening one’s death becomes legal in more areas and less stigmatized among the general population, people will go too far, persuading some to take the step who might not really want to, or helping others die who aren’t terminally ill. But Dincin counters the slippery-slope argument by insisting that there’s an innate drive in every human to stay alive. He agrees, however, that it’s important to be meticulous about evaluating the physical and mental health of prospective assisted-suicide patients.

Since Oregon passed the Death with Dignity Act in 1997, the first breakthrough for the right-to-die movement, death-with-dignity legislation has been introduced regularly in other states, including Washington and Montana, which enacted such laws in 2009.

Internationally, similar legislation has been considered in many countries and has succeeded in such places as Switzerland, Colombia, Albania, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Each nation has its own rules and procedures, but all except Switzerland forbid visiting foreigners from receiving help in hastening their deaths. The World Federation of Right to Die Societies website lists 45 members drawn from 26 countries, underscoring the broad-based support for this idea all over the world.

In America, the Final Exit Network---comprised of volunteers from all over the country---is one of dozens of organizations that advocate for right-to-die laws, but it’s unique because it doesn’t take on the political or legislative side of the battle. It exists simply to support people and help individuals through the process of deciding whether hastening their death is right for them. For patients to receive assistance, they must be extremely ill with an irreversible and fatal disease.

Once a patient is accepted, the organization sends a trained volunteer to the house to ensure the patient’s competency. If there’s any question at all about the patient’s mental state, the organization sends one of its affiliated psychologists for further evaluation. Once competency is proven, the volunteers discuss with the patient the specific method the organization recommends for a quick, painless, and certain end---the method they consider most dignified. The organization never directly intercedes on a patient’s behalf. “We don’t assist in ‘assisted suicide.’ We don’t even use the word. We call it ‘hastening your end,’” Dincin explains. A volunteer will be present, however, if the patient wishes that someone from the organization be there at the moment of death---a request that’s often made.

The Right-to-Die Debate

Dincin thinks that, as a profession, psychotherapy has a responsibility to take a deeper, more thoughtful look at death, and that it’d be a great advance in healthcare if more therapists could become experts in end-of-life care. According to therapist Faye Girsh, an advocate for the right to die, such expertise begins with having more knowledge about the issues surrounding end-of-life care and terminal illnesses, and more awareness of the resources available. “It’s important for therapists to know what the organizations are, what the books are, and what kind of counseling to provide for such individuals, so that terminal patients don’t have to have the anxiety about whether their deaths will be difficult, prolonged, painful, or whether they’re going to lose control.”

This blog is excerpted from “Is Enough Ever Enough?". Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Anxiety/Depression

Tags: ethical issues | breakthrough | counseling | depression | fighting | mental health | psychologist | psychologists | psychotherapy | suicide | therapist | therapy | networker | right to die | assisted suicide | Hemlock Society | Jerry Dincin | Compassion & Choices | euthanasia | Euthanisia Society of America

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1 Comment

Wednesday, July 8, 2015 6:31:46 PM | posted by Jake Roden
Before considering such drastic measures as assisted suicide please try and fight through it! Depression is the most horrible feeling in the world. I still remember the desperate and frustrating feeling it brought me, the feeling that there's no point to anything anymore. I'm glad that chapter of my life is now behind me. Remember hope is never lost it's just up to you to get up and fight through it, if you need help then take a look at what I read over at http://aestheticreview.com/2015/07/06/destroy-depression-review/
there are some good pointers there that can really help. Don't lose hope! Inch by inch it's a cinch!