Editorial: A difficult debate about death

  • Jim Kinhan, 81, of Concord and his life partner Ginny Mierins sit for a portrait at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on April 3, 2015. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Published: 10/13/2016 3:05:08 AM

Jim Kinhan’s last gift was to the nation, not just his family and friends or the area residents who followed his joyous walk toward death as chronicled in this newspaper.

It was Kinhan who, at a CNN town hall meeting last spring, asked Hillary Clinton what her position was on death-with-dignity legislation that would legalize physician-assisted suicide. He had terminal colon cancer. Clinton, who said she had never been asked that before, could only say that it was a big question that needs a national discussion.

Several states, among them Vermont, Washington and Oregon, permit physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill adults. Oddly, the “Live Free or Die” state does not, nor has its governor and Legislature managed to agree to create a committee to study the issue.

This newspaper’s editorial board has not yet taken a formal position on right-to-die legislation because passage of such a law has appeared so remote. Were we to, it would almost certainly be yes, terminally ill adults should, as a matter of personal freedom, have the ability to make that decision.

Doctors and others who assist them should not be prosecuted. We hope a death with dignity committee is created and the discussion continues. The question will be asked more often than ever before, given the rapid aging of the state’s population.

The lack of an assisted-suicide law leaves sufferers near the end of life only one choice if they are no longer able to take matters into their own hands: starve themselves to death.

In Kinhan’s case that occurred just three days after he stopped eating. It usually takes longer than that, much longer. It’s painful and gut-wrenching for loved ones to watch. There has to be a better answer. It appears that states like Oregon and Vermont have found one.

A right to die for adults officially determined to be near the end of life is only the first question to ask.

In June, 5-year-old Julianna Snow, an Oregon girl with a crippling illness that left her without the use of her limbs and no ability to eat save via a tube, died at home in her mother’s arms after declining to put up with one more painful hospital intervention.

The couple, a neurologist and a fighter pilot, both devout, explained death and Heaven as best they could to a 4-year-old and left the decision up to her.

That’s a call not everyone would make, but should age be a major component in right-to-die decisions?

Or how about mental as opposed to emotional torment. Should otherwise healthy seniors, especially if they’re institutionalized, who are depressed and with no desire to keep living, be allowed to end their lives with no penalty for those who assist them? Clinton didn’t answer Jim Kinhan’s question but said, “I thank you for raising this really important absolutely critical question that we’re all going to have to do some thinking about.”

That includes us.

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