This is the first in a five-part series contrasting the ways our society could handle end-of-life care moving forward.
"It was horrible. I got a letter in the mail that basically said if you want to take the pills, we will help you get that from the doctor and we will stand there and watch you die. But we won't give you the medication to live."
That’s how Barbara Wagner described to ABC News her reaction when the state of Oregon decided she wasn’t worth keeping alive anymore in 2008.
Assisted suicide—the act of helping someone commit suicide—is often regarded as ghoulish if the person considering suicide is young and healthy. When the sick and disabled are the ones facing the same gripping despair, instead, groups like Compassion and Choices say they should succumb and call it “dying with dignity.”
Were Barbara Wagner’s choices honored? Did the state of Oregon show compassion when they offered her suicide instead of care? Where's the dignity in being told you aren't worth more than a few dollars worth of poison?
Assisting people in need is a good thing, and caring for the sick and disabled should be something our society places a high value on. When you look at the amount of money we spend on medical care and pioneering new treatments and cures, it’s clear our society does place a high value on assisting the sick.
The newest treatments at the edge of discovery are quite expensive, however. It can take years for revolutionary treatments to become standard, routine, and generally affordable.
How we as a society can ensure that those who can’t afford pioneering treatments still have means to access them is an important, ongoing debate and process.
Instead of coming up with innovative ways to confront our challenges, simply offering to cover $50-worth of lethal drugs so a person can kill themselves is a cheap cop-out. It’s unbecoming of a society that holds itself out as truly compassionate and caring about choices.
American society continues to become greyer and greyer as fewer and fewer children are born. That's also a reality in many other developed nations. Just as we begin to unlock some of the greatest mysteries of the human body to improve the lives of billions of people, the financial incentives are now there to instead sacrifice the aged and the infirm. Whether it’s a looming entitlement crisis or a dearth of young people paying health insurance premiums, it’s tempting to just give up on those who feel like giving up on themselves.
It won’t end there, however. Barbara Wagner wasn’t ready to give up to cancer and wanted to fight one last round. Her doctors had recommended her for treatment, and that was her choice. Her choices, her personal autonomy, her financial situation: ignored. Oregon’s compassion for her ran dry. The bureaucrats managing the Oregon Health Plan had to worry about the bottom line, perhaps telling themselves it's for the greater good.
Barbara hasn't been the only person to receive such a letter. As other states begin to slowly embrace doctor-prescribed suicide, as health insurance companies and government health plans continue to feel the squeeze from our aging demographics, how many more stories like Barbara will we hear? Will we cease to care? Will we feel comfortable about not caring, because it's for the "greater good"?
Sadly Barbara Wagner passed away years ago, though thankfully the maker of the denied drug eventually donated to her the one last fight against cancer she chose.
Our society is at its best when we assist patients in caring for their needs. It’s at its worst when we tell the vulnerable and depressed that they’ve outlived their usefulness to us, and dress up death as assistance.