Bioethics Blogs

New Zealand Case and New York Times Magazine Article Draw Attention to Physician Aid in Dying

Are we reaching a tipping point in the debate over physician aid in dying? A case before the courts in my homeland, New Zealand, combined with a recent New York Times Magazine cover story about an Alzheimer’s patient choosing when to die, have me thinking that the argument for allowing people to receive help ending their lives before illness robs them of meaning is getting very strong indeed.   

The Times story was a careful and beautifully written profile of Sandy Bem, a Cornell University professor emerita and psychologist who decided to die before Alzheimer’s destroyed her ability to participate in the relationships and activities she deemed essential to a good life. As Robin Marantz Henig reported, Bem, after receiving her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, “felt terror at the prospect of becoming a hollowed-out person with no memory, mind or sense of identity, as well as fury that she was powerless to do anything but endure it.” The main struggle, once Bem worked out how to kill herself, was determining when to exit. A right-to-die advocate interviewed for the article noted that a person like Bem must consider giving up “some period of time in which she might still be able to take some small pleasures in her life, just to be certain of ending it while she still could.”

In the end, it seems to me, Bem struck the balance perfectly. In the final weeks her friends noticed that she seemed to take no joy in her life anymore. Days before she drank from a glass containing pentobarbital and fell into her final sleep, she had failed to recognize her own daughter, asking a friend, “Who is that person’s mother?” While never addressing it explicitly, the story raises the question: Ought not Alzheimer’s patients, who might be years from death, be able to choose to die before their minds’ grip on reality—and more importantly, its grip on the contours of that person’s life—are completely frayed?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.