If there is one thing that we can count on in life it is that someday we will die. For most people, this is not a thought that is dwelt upon; it is simply a fact of existence. We know that someday, somehow, our life will come to an end. In most cases, the time and manner of our demise is not something which we can foretell, nor is it something that we spend a great deal of time thinking about. Rather, we go through our lives attempting to enjoy as many moments as we can without worrying about its ultimate end, assuming it is sometime far off in the future. Most of us yearn for a long, healthy life filled with unique experiences, or at least one with little strife. And we attempt to structure our lives so that they offer enjoyment and satisfaction not only for ourselves, but for our families as well.

The religions that guide humanity tend to teach us that life is sacred, something to be cherished and protected. These religious beliefs hold that life is a gift from God and it is only God that can determine when a life should end. For many religious individuals, the concept of taking ones own life is usually looked upon with great disdain, and the act of suicide promises eternal damnation in the ever after. There are no exceptions to this rule, no provisions for those whose quality of life has been degraded by health concerns or by circumstances that delete all happiness from life itself. (Readers may note that some forms of religion are currently encouraging suicide as a means of political expression, with their goal to take as many “infidels” to the grave with them as they can. I assert that the people who commit these types of suicidal acts are not doing so to relieve their own suffering, but rather are murderers.)

Despite modern advances in medical technology, there are people among us who’s lives become either too painful to continue living or that are, due to an unrecoverable illness, not worth waiting for the inevitable, at least in their estimation. Shouldn’t those individuals have the right to choose an end to their lives that would afford them the least amount of continued pain? According to the laws of society, the answer would be no. But does the prohibition against suicide, in all forms and under any circumstances, truly represent the values of a society based on the concepts of personal freedom and personal happiness? Does society even have the right to determine what constitutes happiness? Provided that the ending of ones own life does not also cause the end of another’s, what right has society to dictate when an illness renders life unlivable?

While it may be true that for cases of depression, suicide is often less a desire to end life than it is a cry for attention, for those suffering from a fatal illness, the desire to end life on ones own terms is often a well thought out decision to reduce the pain that their illness is causing themselves and their family. Society has the duty to respect these desires and to allow the suffering individual a legal option for ending their life, without punishing them or their survivors through punitive or criminal means. Society has the obligation to allow individuals, their families, and their physicians the option of bringing an end to their suffering in a way that is acceptable to them. With that in mind, laws prohibiting suicide for the terminally ill should be amended or abolished altogether.

Terminally ill people, should they decide to end their lives in order to spare themselves the increasing physical pain of illness or their families the mental pain of watching a loved one deteriorate before their eyes or their survivors the financial ruin often associated with the long term medical costs of prolonging a painful illness, should be allowed the option of ending their lives in a manner of their choosing, if they so decide. There should be counseling programs available that educate these folks on the least painful methods of ending their lives as well as offering ways to mitigate the anguish of their survivors. With the diagnosis of terminal illness, a person has many choices to make, and the fear of financial or legal retribution for themselves or their survivors if they decide to end their lives should not be among those that dictate what path they choose to take. This decision should rest with the affected person, their doctor, and their family.

Similarly, removal of legal restrictions regarding this kind of suicide would prevent the actions of disinterested parties (government) or non-nuclear family relatives from artificially prolonging the life of someone rendered incapable of making the final choice to end their life. Today’s Living Will provisions could be strengthened to include the circumstances whereby a person could assert the desires of a loved one to end life in cases of severe incapacitation, provided those directions were clearly set out prior to the cause of permanent injury, regardless of the religious prohibitions of other family members or the possible future medical remedies that may be years or decades away, if they ever appear at all.

Opponents of the concept of the right to die most often insert their religious doctrines into their reasoning for their objections. But just as often, opponents cite fears of suicide or euthanasia becoming just a means to rid society of the elderly and the infirm. They claim that terminally ill individuals will be pressured into prematurely ending their lives to spare their families the financial costs associated with long-term terminal care. However, due to the religious beliefs that are held by so many, the instances of this kind of practice would likely be only a small percentage of those suffering from terminal illness. Just as with other relaxations of so-called morality based legislation, the mere legalization of an act does not mean that many millions will choose this as a course to follow. In fact, Oregon’s Death with Dignity law (the nation’s first legal assisted suicide law) shows statistics of only 129 cases of this kind of suicide from 1998 to 2002. Surely, many more than 129 people were diagnosed with terminal illness in Oregon in those years. The argument is hollow when the facts are revealed. Simply making this option available does not mean that it will become the preferred choice for those facing imminent death.

Suicide is never an easy decision, and in cases not related to terminal illness, society has the obligation to try and treat those whose suicidal thoughts stem from depression or temporary malcontent. But for those whose time has run out, or is running out, due to disease, properly crafted laws that allow them to choose death on their terms would go a long way towards ensuring that the right to die is included in the other “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”