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Parsing the difference between suicide and 'death with dignity'

Letters on physician-assisted suicide share grippingly personal tales of struggling with illness

Everyone dies, so perhaps it's no surprise that we received a few dozen letters discussing Dr. Ira Byock's Op-Ed article Sunday questioning a "death with dignity" bill in California. What was more novel was the polarized reaction to letter writer Sarah Edwards, a therapist who distinguished between suicide and the kind of end-of-life choice made by terminally ill patients such as 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who died in November.

What makes letters on "death with dignity" particularly interesting isn't the positions they take, but rather the readers' tales of how they arrived at those positions. Healthcare workers tell of patients they cared for, spouses and children of loved ones who suffered great pain or ended their own lives, and other readers of their thoughts on making end-of-life decisions.

Sonia E. Brody of Los Angeles says "death with dignity" isn't suicide:

Like Sarah Edwards, as a psychologist I have dealt with suicide. I cannot agree more with her that we need a terminology that makes the distinction between jumping off a bridge because of a broken love affair (suicide) and someone suffering from terminal cancer who makes the decision to end her life with someone's help (assisted suicide).

When it is evident that one is at the end of life, how and by which means one wants to exit should be left to one's own decision, and those who can help the process should not be criticized or punished.

South Pasadena resident Beverly Archer shares her experience with her husband:

I do not have Edwards' credentials, but I did have to journey through the aftermath of my husband's suicide. I find it appalling that Edwards contributes to the myth that losing a girlfriend or a job causes suicide.

Suicide is rarely the result of a single issue. It is almost always driven by an underlying illness such as untreated depression.

A person who commits suicide reaches a point of hopelessness. They see no way out. They believe their families and the world will be better off without them. Survivors of a suicide attempt have said that it presents itself as a logical solution and a relief of suffering. In those ways they are choosing a "death with dignity."

Can a difficult incident spark suicide? Of course. But to conclude that "in these cases, life can still continue" is condescending.

Nathan Pila of Toronto compares the debate over assisted suicide to abortion decades ago:

There was a time abortion was illegal, when women had to undergo heroic measures to free their bodies of an unwanted fetus. These women didn't deserve to be put into the situation where they had to do the medical procedure without aid of a competent doctor.

A similarity exists between the argument for abortion and suicide. Whose life it is anyway? If someone wants to end his life, what business is it of the state?

And for those who are not old and infirm but are in agony because of health issues and want to move the end of life closer, the same logic should apply. If your life is a tedious hell of pain and discomfort, you should have the option to appeal for final relief.

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