Opinion

MAURER: Live like humans and die like dogs

August 10, 2009

We lost a member of the family last month. Casey Elizabeth Maurer died a peaceful death at her age of 105. At the end, her hearing and eyesight were vastly impaired and she was in constant pain. Her time had come.

Casey was incapable of deciding her own fate and, given the circumstances, Janie and I enlisted a doctor to administer a lethal injection. Death came quietly and swiftly. This merciful act did not occur in Oregon, where a physician-assisted suicide law has been in effect since 1994, nor in the Netherlands, where, according to Time magazine, pursuant to the existing law, one in four doctors confided they had killed patients without an explicit request. Casey was sent to her final rest in Indiana.

Please don’t call the cops. It was all perfectly legal. You see, Casey was a poodle. In Indiana, dogs are allowed the dignified death to which we all aspire—humans are not.

Had Casey been human, her death would have been termed an active involuntary euthanasia: legal injection by a doctor into a dying patient without that person’s express request. In Indiana, the doctor would have been convicted of murder and sentenced to prison for half a century.

Hoosiers officially view assisted suicide only slightly less severely. Indiana Code ranks assisted suicide as a Class C felony and penalizes anyone who would provide the physical means by which another person attempts or commits suicide. A Class C conviction carries a sentence of two to eight years. Legally speaking, in Indiana if you are terminally ill and wish to hasten a slow, agonizing death, you must do it by yourself, and if you cannot, we don’t care.

Little solace can be derived from enacting a living will. A living will is an advanced directive by which a person requests in writing that a physician disconnect him or her from life-supporting equipment—or refrain from connecting that individual to such equipment—if the equipment is merely delaying an inevitable death. A living will is legal in all U.S. states but, according to anecdotal evidence, physicians are often unaware of its existence or choose to disregard its instructions. Moreover, the living will does not abate jeopardy for the doctor in cases of euthanasia or assisted suicide in Indiana.

For years, clandestine euthanasia and assisted suicides have undoubtedly occurred at the hands of enlightened and caring physicians. The issue left the whispered confines of the doctors’ lounge and rose to the level of public discourse in 1990, when Dr. Jack Kevorkian, known as Dr. Death, gained worldwide attention by publicly assisting in several suicides of dying patients.

In 1998, Oregon implemented the Death with Dignity Act, which permits terminally ill patients, under proper safeguards, to obtain a physician’s prescription to end life in a humane and dignified manner. In the last 10 years, approximately 350 terminal patients have been recorded as having used the Oregon law to accelerate their ends. This topic entered popular culture in 2004 when, in the Oscar-winning movie “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), Frankie (Clint Eastwood) acceded to the request of a quadriplegic, Maggie (Hillary Swank), and ended her life with a lethal injection of adrenaline.

Whose life is it, anyway? What is it that society values that is so important as to prevail over the ultimate liberty of deciding when to die? Perhaps it is a question of freedom from religion. Must those of us who disagree subordinate our end-of-life decisions to those who believe death should come about only by the will of a deity? I think not.

We deserve a debate of this issue in our Legislature. But first, our representatives should experience a terminally ill patient in profound pain pleading for the right to die in a manner and in a time of his or her own choosing. Indiana should join Oregon in granting this important freedom. Until then, one can only hope to live like a human and die like a dog.•

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Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal. His column appears every other week. To comment on this column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.com

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