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Dying with Dignity; Living with Laws (and Ethics)

An increasing number of jurisdictions allow individuals to obtain medication prescribed by their physicians for medical assistance in dying (MAID). But discussion of whether (and to what extent) individuals have the right to use the health care system to control the time and manner of their death is not limited to MAID. The right also exists in other contexts, such as directing the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatments. Palliative (or terminal) sedation involves medications to render a patient unconscious, coupled with either the withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration or their not being administered at all. In high-enough doses, these medications may further suppress already-weakened cardiopulmonary function even if there is no intent to hasten death. When teaching about these topics, I challenge students to consider whether there are meaningful differences between practices like euthanasia, MAID, aggressive use of morphine, terminal sedation, or the withdrawal of ventilator support. Whether their differences are morally, ethically, or legally meaningful can be difficult to tease out. After recently watching a loved one, whom I call “Stephan,” direct the time and manner of his death within hospice care in a state that does not allow MAID, I am less inclined than ever to believe that the differences are meaningful in a way the law should recognize.

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