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November 13, 2007

Right to Die Debated at MLR Symposium

By Sumeera Younis

On November 8, the University of Michigan Law Review hosted a symposium titled Death, Dying and the Constitution. The first half of the symposium took a look back on Washington v. Glucksberg, with four scholars debating whether there is a constitutional right to assistance in suicide. Both sides passionately defended their stances, making for a heated debate.

Constitutional Law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky framed his argument with the story of his dying father, who asked to be put to death in the last stages of his terminal illness. Chemerinsky argued that there is no viable state interest in prolonging the life of someone who is days away from death. Chemerinsky reasoned that it is better to allow that person to choose to end his or her life than to subject him or her to extended suffering.

Kathryn Tucker, Legal Affairs Director of Compassion & Choices, a choice-in-dying advocacy group, largely agreed with Professor Chemerinsky. Tucker discussed the Oregon Death With Dignity Act, conveying stories of terminally ill individuals being allowed to have peaceful deaths surrounded by family members and loved ones. She argued that many of the concerns that critics have with a patient’s right to choose are overblown and that the success of the Oregon model empirically disproves many objections.

The opposing viewpoints were argued by Yale Kamisar, the Law School’s own Clarence Darrow Distinguished University Professor of Law Emeritus, and Herbert Hendin, M.D., President and Medical Director, Suicide Prevention International, and Professor of Psychiatry, New York Medical College. Professor Kamisar challenged the characterization of euthanasia as “death with dignity,” arguing that this phrase implies that that people who do not support it want undignified deaths for the individuals. Prof. Kamisar described a different reality than the one Tucker had discussed. He noted that 15 to 25 percent of the people who had assistance in ending their life under the Oregon Act faced complications which traumatized them, not allowing them to die peacefully at all. He also argued that asserting that only terminally ill patients had a right to assisted suicide was arbitrary, questioning whether paraplegics, handicapped individuals or people with other difficulties should also be allowed physician assisted suicide under this rationale.

Dr. Hendin noted further that it was disingenuous to say that a terminally ill patient’s only options are to suffer horribly or choose to die preemptively. Dr. Hendin argued that in most cases patients are able to transition to a natural death through counseling and various palliative medications.

At the end of the symposium many questions were left unanswered – literally, as questions were cut short because of time constraints. The Glucksberg decision has been criticized for being unclear and inconsistent but if the debate on Friday was any indication, there will not be a simple fix for this complex issue any time soon.