The majority of U.S. states make it illegal for anyone to take their own life or receive assistance in taking their own life. More than 30 of these states have laws on the books specifically identifying assisted suicide as a crime. A number of states address the concept of assisted suicide in the common law classifications while one state -- Montana -- has had the criminalization of physician assisted suicide nullified in court.
There are only two states -- Oregon and Washington -- that have specifically legalized physician assisted suicide. There, residents who are terminally ill and doomed to a horrific death would seemingly have the best possible outcome for their otherwise tragic situation.
But -- like many well intended laws passed across the U.S. -- the effective reality of physician assisted suicide falls far from its intended mark. Curtis Johnson, a 55-year-old business man and educator who suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis otherwise known as ALS, finds that even though he lives in Washington he cannot get the assistance he needs to end his suffering when the time comes.
ALS rarely kills someone in less than a year. Tragically, in Johnson's case, the disease has progressed so rapidly that within a few months of his diagnosis he faced the dilemma of picking when he will die. He could have much more time to live if the law did not require him to administer the lethal drugs himself. If Washington State allowed a physician to physically assist his suicide, Johnson could wait until long after his hands stopped working to end his life.
This week Johnson penned a "Final Essay" for his family and friends. He wrote that the "lack of any real assistance" means he won't be able to hang on between when he loses the motor skills necessary to take his life and when he actually needs a merciful end to his suffering.
Johnson must die prematurely in order to control his death at all.
Johnson explains, "although our state has a Death With Dignity law, the assistance provision in the law is a farce, only providing for a lethal prescription which must be self-administered, leaving the patient such as myself with the unenviable choice of ending their lives prematurely or crossing that threshold where they won't be able to at all and damning them to an end of frustration and dependence, misery, pain and pain killers." Johnson goes on, "Left with such a choice I must go with prematurely ending my life."
Once Johnson accepted that he would die by his own hand and not when he was ready to succumb to his condition, he searched for a silver lining to the loss he, his wife, children, grandchildren and other loved ones would endure. But all he discovered was further proof of "how primitive we remain as a species."
Johnson wanted to make the best of his death by helping others live. Johnson's essay explains, "Although my motor neurons are wasted, only my muscle tissue is affected. Otherwise I'm a perfectly healthy 55-year old male. I don't smoke. I exercised daily. My BP is still 110/70, and my heart rate a steady 70. My cholesterol has been as low as 128, and last stood at 160. Triglycerides and blood sugar levels have always been normal. My BMI has never been higher than 27, and body fat less than 22%." Consequently, "I have perfectly functioning lungs, kidneys, heart, and liver." Johnson concluded, "Surely there are candidates out there, some having waited for years, others desperately running out of time, who could use my organs to save their own lives."
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that people with infectious diseases cannot donate their organs. Those diseases are "HIV, actively spreading brain cancer, and certain severe, current infections."
But Johnson's correct, even though he doesn't have any of those donor disqualifying conditions he still cannot donate his organs when he terminates his life. Subsequently, on the day Johnson dies, 18 other people will die waiting for an organ donation that will never come.
Johnson expresses the final contemptible frustration resulting from his premature death: "When I asked physicians, social workers, and hospice professionals about donating organs I was met with ignorance and negative responses." After researching the topic himself, Johnson learned, "Organ donation must be conducted in a hospital immediately following the death of the donor. You have to be brain-dead in the hospital. Then they keep you on life support while they harvest the organs. Euthanasia is not allowed in hospitals; ergo my healthy organs get flushed."
Johnson will die soon. He'll die sooner than he needs to or wants to so that no one who loves him will be tempted to help him take the lethal dose of medicine his physician has prescribed, and his potentially lifesaving organs will die with him.