Of all recent developments in elder law, the coordinated push to allow for physician-assisted suicide is likely the most controversial. The assisted-suicide movement received an enormous publicity boost due to the death last year of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old New Jersey woman terminally ill with brain cancer. Because of restrictions in her home state, Maynard moved to Oregon, where the law allows the terminally ill to take their own life under medical supervision. In response to the publicity, the New Jersey legislature is now considering passage of a law that will enable state residents to have the option of following in Maynard's footsteps - supposedly a "humane and dignified death."
The organization "Compassion & Choices," successor to the Hemlock Society, has cheered the media bandwidth generated by Maynard's suicide and called for other states to follow suit. With growing traction in the press on the issue of assisted suicide, it's important to remember that in Oregon, the model being proposed to the rest of the country, there are a number of cases that call into question the entire assisted suicide program and its premises.
One key factor that advocates for the practice would rather we ignore is elder abuse and the potential for undue influence. Brittany Maynard may have been young and beautiful, but the average age for assisted-suicide patients is 71. Take, for example, the case of Kate Cheney, who suffered from dementia and memory lapses. It was her adult daughter who aggressively applied "somewhat coercive" pressure to secure doctor approval for her mother's death. After several refusals due to her mother's condition, the daughter eventually found a physician who would sign off on the measure. Was Cheney truly making the decision, or was it her daughter?
Elder abuse and the related phenomenon of undue influence are unfortunately most often perpetrated by family members, and it's family members who are most likely to shape decisions about "end-of-life choices," i.e. suicide. And with undue influence, suicide can easily transition to murder. All of this ties into an overall tendency to treat the elderly as unnecessary and unwanted, a "waste of life." So much for compassion and choices. In such a context senior citizens, terminally ill or otherwise, will be more likely to internalize these profoundly destructive views and act accordingly.
Pain and suffering of the dying should be confronted and alleviated. Yet rather than devaluing life, let's remember as a society that life itself isn't disposable - it's a gift and inherently good - for young and old alike.