People with terminal illnesses advocate physician-assisted death: ‘It’s my way of being in control’

On a brisk day at a restaurant outside Chicago, Deb Robertson sat with her teenage grandson to talk about her death. She will probably miss his high school graduation.

Death doesn’t scare her that much. The 65-year-old didn’t cry when she learned two months ago that the cancerous tumors in her liver were spreading, portending an anguished death.

But later she received a phone call. A bill passed by the Illinois legislature to allow certain terminally ill patients to end their lives with the help of a doctor had made progress. Then she cried.

“Medical aid in dying is not my choice to die,” she tells her 17-year-old grandson. “I’m dying. But it’s my way of having a little more control over what it looks like in the end.”

That same conversation is taking place across the country, as Americans nearing the end of their lives negotiate the terms with themselves, their families and, now, state lawmakers.

Deb Robertson kisses her wife, Kate Koubek, as they prepare for a meal with family and friends at their home in Lombard, Illinois, on March 23, 2024. Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

At least twelve states currently have bills legalizing physician-assisted death. Eight states and Washington DC already allow this, but only for their own residents. Vermont and Oregon allow any eligible American to travel to their state for the training. Patients must be at least 18 years old within six months of death and be assessed to ensure they are able to make an informed decision.

Two states have gone in opposite directions. Kansas has a bill to further criminalize those who assist someone in a physician-assisted death. West Virginia is asking voters to enshrine the current ban in the state constitution.

That patchwork of laws has left Americans without recourse in most states. Some patients choose to apply for residency in a state where this is legal. Others make arduous journeys in the late stages of the disease to die in unfamiliar places and beds, far from family, friends and pets.

Opponents have moral objections to the idea of ​​someone ending their life. Even if precautions are in place, they say, the decision could be made for the wrong reasons, including depression or pressure from family burdened by their care.

“It normalizes suicide, and it encourages individuals to end their lives,” said Danielle Pimentel of Americans United for Life. Pimentel expressed concern that pain is not the main reason why people choose early departure, adding that policies should focus on improving end-of-life care.

Two national organizations lobbying for the bills argue they involve autonomy and compassion, and some power over a person’s predestined departure.

Deb Robertson responds to a card made for her on March 23, 2024 by her daughter’s student, Shannon Rodriguez, in Lombard, Illinois. Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

“It comes down to an individual’s right to control their own end-of-life decisions, free from government or religious interference,” said Goeff Sugerman, national campaign strategist for Death With Dignity.

Although it is illegal in most states, a 2018 Gallup poll found that more than two-thirds of Americans support the practice.

Only a small share of Americans nationwide, about 8,700, have used physician-assisted dying since Oregon became the first state to legalize it in 1997, according to the advocacy group Compassion & Choices.

Normally, two doctors must confirm that a patient has six months to live. The patient must request this verbally twice, with a waiting period that varies by state, and submit a written request with witnesses.

During three meetings, a doctor assesses the patient to ensure they can make an informed decision. If there are any concerns, the patient may be referred to a psychologist for evaluation. Patients must take the medications themselves. They quickly lose consciousness.