Steinberg: Is there a right to die?

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John Loder was a sound engineer in London. He recorded high volume rock bands like Big Black, so perhaps it was not surprising that he frequently had headaches.

In 2003 the headaches got worse, and he was diagnosed with a brain tumor: malignant, inoperable.

It took him almost two years to die.

“In August 2005, my mum called me and said he can’t get out of bed,” said his daughter, Natasha Loder. “They took him to the Institute of Neurology in London. He had the brain scan, and we got called in. The doctor said, ‘Look, the news is grim. The tumor has gone from a golf ball to a grapefruit. He’s going to die soon.’ ”


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Loder was telling me this because she is the health correspondent for The Economist, the British news magazine that Friday publishes “The Right to Die: Why assisted suicide should be legal,” detailing how the push to allow patients to make end-of-life decisions is gaining traction across the developed world. California might make it legal later this month. I’ve known Loder for four years since she arrived in Chicago, and she never before flagged a subject that the magazine is featuring.

But this one is personal, even though her father’s end was better than many.

“It was a relatively quick death,a good death,” she said. “Over the last few days, he was dying, it was clear he was dying. But one of the things about brain tumors, it makes you sleepy, so that was kind of wonderful. We didn’t know if he was conscious, but he seemed to respond to our touch.”

John Loder was 59. His end was relatively peaceful.But what if it hadn’t been?

“It wasn’t until afterward I started feeling quite angry, that there was never any option for him,” said Loder. “Nobody is fighting for the rights of the dying.”

The arguments against assisted suicide are familiar: that it’s a slippery slope, leading straight to euthanasia and the Nazis. That poor people and those who don’t want to create a financial burden will embrace it.That elderly people will be pressured by their families. That it implies people who are severely disabled can’t have quality lives.

The best counter argument is this: assisted suicide is already legal in three states — Oregon, Vermont and Washington State — and permitted in Montana (it was briefly allowed in New Mexico but now is in legal limbo) and these problems are not widespread.Only about 1,100 people have gotten Death With Dignity prescriptions since the law went into effect in 1998.

“Oregon isn’t a slippery slope,” said Loder, pointing out that just knowing the option is available is a comfort to the dying.

“This takes away the fear from death,” she said. “Of the people who have been given the drug in Oregon, two-thirds took it and one-third never took it. They just wanted it there, to know, ‘If this is ever too much for me, I could take it.’ ”

The Economist polled 15 nations about right-to-die: the majority of citizens in 13, including two-thirds in the United States, support it, with only Russia and Poland against.

“There’s a lot of support,” Loder said.

Given how the discussion of Obamacare pivoted on an idealized view of health care: waving the bogeyman of socialized medicine at people who don’t have any health insurance at all, it’ll be interesting to see if this subject is the next moral issue to make headlines. But the reality is there.

“We don’t all die at age of 90 in our sleep after a wonderful life. For a lot of people dying is terrible,” Loder said. “My father was relatively lucky, but had the cancer been somewhere else he could have been in agony. Many people are dying long and protracted deaths, full of suffering and loss of dignity. It could happen to you, it could happen to me, it could happen to anybody.”

I said that in America we have a far easier time dictating what other people do based on our own moral values, and a much harder time with anything that suggests people have the right to apply their own values to their own lives.

“Let’s have the debate,” she said. “You do live in a democracy, and most people do support the idea of being able to help those who are terminally ill have choices.”

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