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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Assisted suicide should be differentiated, redefined

    A Tucson man pled guilty to manslaughter last month in an assisted suicide case. Physician-assisted suicide is legal under the Death with Dignity Act in my hometown of Seattle, so I was horrified to hear that he could receive seven to 10.5 years in jail — until I heard the whole story.

    Tyler Christopher Gunn, 47, told investigators that he helped Katherine Lemberg, 37, take her own life by putting a bag over her head and directing helium gas into it.

    With these brutal details in mind, the sentence is understandable. Gunn was not a caring doctor helping a terminally-ill patient pass away painlessly. He was a man who suffocated a friend whose reason for wanting to die remains unknown. Unfortunately, the charge of “assisted suicide” is misleading, and conjures up undeserved sympathy.

    This isn’t an isolated case, either: Kenneth Minor from New York claims that Jeffrey Locker, a motivational speaker and author struggling with debt, asked Minor to help stage his death to make it look like a mugging so his family could receive his life insurance benefits. Minor told authorities that he held a knife against the steering wheel of Locker’s car while Locker repeatedly lunged into the knife.

    Originally convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison, Minor won an appeal Oct. 3 to instead be tried for manslaughter.

    However, the media and the courts continue to classify these disturbing incidents as “assisted suicide,” lumping them into the same category as ethical, physician-assisted death.

    If the media continues to associate assisted suicide with sketchy suffocation and a “knifing on the streets of East Harlem,” while turning a blind eye to the merits of physician-assisted suicide, people will fail to see the nobler side of euthanasia.

    There needs to be a clearer distinction in both the law and the media between these two “assisted suicide” cases and that of a physician helping an elderly or sick patient pass on.

    There is a large difference in morality between what the Tucson and New York men did and what is legal in Washington, Oregon, Vermont and Montana, but that difference is lost in the verbage. If you search “assisted suicide” on Google, the second result is the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Center’s webpage at assistedsuicide.org. What this group supports — ending the suffering of dying patients by their consent — is buried when people begin associating assisted suicide with cases like Gunn and Minor.

    Our names and terms for things are important. George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was one of many people who led the push to use the term “undocumented migrant” instead of “illegal immigrant,” because language matters when addressing legal and political issues.

    The same principle can be applied to assisted suicide. Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act “allows terminally-ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose.” This is not mindless and brutal killing, and it shouldn’t be lumped into the same category as manslaughter.

    The act requires three statements of consent from the patient: two verbal statements separated by a period of 15 days and one written request with two witness signatures, one of whom is not related to the patient, in addition to a confirmation of the patient’s terminality and an evaluation of the patient’s sanity by attending and consulting physicians. Furthermore, the patient must be well-informed of the alternative treatments and options available. These and more restrictions ensure that acts of physician-assisted suicide are far different from manslaughter.

    Physician-assisted suicide, though only legal in four states, should be considered with an open mind, unblemished by the callous actions of men like Gunn and Minor. It’s important that the media keep the difference between the two in mind when reporting these types of cases.

    Elizabeth Eaton is a pre-journalism freshmen. Follow her @wildcatopinions.

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