Why I Advocate for Aid in Dying

By Cindy Merrill

Many years ago, during a trip to San Antonio to visit with my elderly ailing parents, my father took me aside and said to me, “Cindy, please get me a gun; I can’t go on like this.”  I recoiled with a gasp.  Hearing my reaction, he quickly said he didn’t mean it.  However, we both knew that he did.  Eighty-seven years old, blind, enfeebled and exhausted from lung problems and advanced Parkinson’s disease, no longer capable of walking but a few steps and never without a walker, my father yearned for death.

In his earlier life he had been a respected builder, a decorated Lieutenant Colonel in the Army during WWII, an active member of his church and community, loving husband and beloved father of two. He had had a very active, volunteer-filled retirement. He now was incapable of reading, volunteering, gardening, traveling, driving a car, watching TV, walking for any great length or caring for himself.  With most of his family and friends long dead, my father endured this diminished life hour after hour, day after day, and year after year.  He was now broken from this endless cycle of misery and suffering.

I was a daddy’s girl completely incapable of imagining him gone and totally helpless to improve the quality of his life. His situation eventually lead me to think seriously about our responsibility to those in the throes of intractable pain and suffering, terminal illness or end stage half-lives.  A collection of essays entitled Must We Suffer Our Way to Death? addresses this issue from cultural, theological, and ethical perspectives. I believe that, in this day and age, the answer to that question should be a resounding no.

Medical aid in dying, also known as physician assisted dying or death with dignity, gripped the national conscience in 2014 when a 29-year old California woman by the name of Brittany Maynard went public that she was dying of a serious brain cancer called glioblastoma and was moving to Oregon to avail herself of aid in dying. After treatments had failed and her doctors had told her that the end was coming and that it would get ugly, she decided that she wanted a compassionate, peaceful death in her own bed surrounded by her loved ones. However, California at that time did not have an aid in dying statute so Brittany, her husband and her mother were forced to leave and move to Oregon where on November 1, 2014, she took a lethal pharmaceutical and died peacefully in the arms of her family. Her story resonated with millions of people around the United States and ultimately was one of the driving forces which convinced California lawmakers to pass an aid in dying law.

Physician assisted dying allows a mentally competent terminally ill adult, who has been seen by two doctors who attest that the patient is mentally sound and within 6 months of death, to obtain a prescription for a lethal pharmaceutical to end their lives when and if they so choose. The pharmaceutical must be self-administered.

I co-founded Texas Death with Dignity in 2013 with Penny Shelfer. Our advocacy group advocates for end of life options and supports a medical aid in dying statute in Texas. It educates Texas citizens about aid in dying through presentations, its Facebook page and website, media interviews and through newspaper opinion articles and Letters to the Editor. Having personally watched friends and family members experience prolonged pain and suffering during end of life illnesses, followers of Texas Death with Dignity advocate so future Texans do not have to suffer their way to death.

Death with Dignity Legislative Map 2016
Death with Dignity Legislative Map 2016

After having researched Oregon’s almost 20-year use of their Death with Dignity Act and other end of life issues, I have concluded the following:

  • None of the concerns expressed by opposition groups, such as that the law targets individuals with disabilities or mental health issues, or that it will steer the sick away from treatment, have materialized in Oregon or Washington State.
  • Few terminally ill people access this law but most people polled were relieved that access to the law was available if they would need it in their future.
  • The law provides a quick, painless and peaceful death for the terminally ill patient.
  • Families of those who access the law do not experience shock and are not dispirited or filled with guilt like families of people who commit suicide.
  • Most national polls show large majorities support aid in dying.
  • Texans believe in religious liberty and self-determination in health care decisions.

Texas does not allow their terminally ill adults to have this end of life option. Because Texas does not allow its citizens any form of initiative, recall or referendum, outside of voter approval for constitutional amendments—a limited type of referendum—we are left at the mercy of the party in power to make some of the most critical decisions we face in life. Currently, because certain state leaders oppose physician assisted dying, which they call assisted suicide, a misnomer, any attempt to start the conversation about a medical aid in dying law with the party in power is met with silence.

Religious groups also oppose aid in dying because they believe that suffering while dying, so-called redemptive suffering, is a spiritual necessity. But theologian Dr. Joseph Fletcher finds nothing ennobling in suffering and writes that “ethicists question whether it is a person’s duty to stay alive because others insist that pain is good for him.”

Years after my father’s terrible decline and death, I became a supporter of death with dignity. I determined that the most vulnerable around us, those facing an impending death with unbearable suffering, should have the right to access a peaceful and gentle death, in their homes, in their beds and surrounded by their loved ones. Suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, an advocate of an aid in dying law once said that death is inevitable but suffering should be optional.

For more information on Cindy Merrill’s work with Texas Death with Dignity and the status of legislation in Texas and around the globe, watch her below interview with Passion Time’s Patricia Gras on Right to Die in Texas. Patrica Gras is a 28 year Emmy award winning veteran television and video journalist.

Cindy Merill, J.D.
Cindy Merill, J.D.

Cindy Henry Merrill, J.D., is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D. C. and obtained her law degree in 1984 from South Texas College of Law Houston. For many years she was a chief prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. In 2013 she co-founded Texas Death with Dignity which advocates for end of life options and supports an aid in dying statute in Texas. She is a local advocate for the Death with Dignity National Center.

Cindy will be speaking at our upcoming Controversy & Conversation series screening of How to Die in Oregon at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library on January 5, 2017 at 7pm. This event is free and open to the public. 

8 thoughts on “Why I Advocate for Aid in Dying”

  1. A few years ago voters in Massachusetts rejected an initiative to allow death with dignity/physician assisted death. Major opposition came from the catholic church, which considers this to be suicide, a sin, since only god can determine the time of death. Some christian churches joined in but others supported the reasonable, thoughtful and thoroughly safeguarded provisions of the law. Much of the opposition seems to me to be religions seeking to incorporate their beliefs into law, or to prevent individuals with different values from exercising their own choice. There is currently a lawsuit making its way through MA courts to establish this choice as a right.

    I have discussed physician assisted death with my own doctor. I am in good health but now is the time to make my wishes known. She agrees that there are circumstances where this course of action is the best treatment.

    Thank you for sharing your story, and your father’s painful ending. You make a moving and profound argument for preventing others from having to suffer like he (and you) did.

    1. Thank you, Jane, for your kind words. I so hope that the lawsuit in MA is successful in bringing the option of medical aid in dying to those terminally ill people who may want to access it if their suffering becomes too great. I am glad that your physician understands that there are times when forcing a suffering dying person to linger to “natural death” violates the spirit of “do no harm”.

  2. Excellent interview, well researched, informative and documented.
    Thank you Cindy Merrill. Your commitment to this cause is admirable.

  3. Cindy Merrill, please let me know if I can help. This is Brittany Maynard’s momma. I’m from Texas. I would like to see the state I grew up in move forward on this important issue. Thank you for starting this DWD chapter.

    1. Ms. Ziegler, it means so much to me that you have reached out to me and our advocacy. Of course, I am terribly sorry for the loss of your brave daughter and we are all so proud of the work you are doing in her memory. I did not know that you were from Texas and we will definitely reach out to you in the future. I know that there are currently states which are close to realizing an aid in dying law and I am sure your support will be of great value to them as it will be for us. It will be a slog here to get this law passed but I know it will pass one day. Please go to either our website or our Facebook page and find our e-mail address and if you choose, please write me so I will have your e-mail address. Again, thank you so much for reaching out. Cindy

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