As assisted suicide gains in popularity around the world, people seem to be increasingly drawn to the promise of “death with dignity.” The death industry promises the world that they can avoid a supposedly “undignified” death, one that is long and full of pain. Instead, with euthanasia and assisted suicide, they are told they can die on their own terms, quickly and with no pain. However, it’s increasingly becoming clear that this promise is akin to a fairy tale.
Dr. Joel Zivot, an associate professor of anesthesiology and surgery at the Emory School of Medicine, is also considered an expert on “physician participation in lethal injection.” He regularly campaigns against the use of lethal injection for execution in the United States, having witnessed it firsthand multiple times. In an op-ed for The Spectator, Zivot points out that assisted suicide actually brings about a painful — not painless — death.
Some may argue that the death penalty has nothing to do with assisted suicide. But Zivot feels otherwise.
“Cannot move a muscle”
“The death penalty is not the same as assisted dying, of course. Executions are meant to be punishment; euthanasia is about relief from suffering,” he admitted. “Yet for both euthanasia and executions, paralytic drugs are used. These drugs, given in high enough doses, mean that a patient cannot move a muscle, cannot express any outward or visible sign of pain. But that doesn’t mean that he or she is free from suffering.”
He further explained just what happened to one person, Marcus Wellons, after he was executed using the same drugs frequently used in assisted suicide.
“Wellons’s autopsy revealed that his lungs were profoundly congested with fluid, meaning they were around twice the normal weight of healthy lungs,” he said. “He had suffered what is known as pulmonary edema, which could only have occurred as he lay dying. Wellons had drowned in his secretions. Yet even my medical eye detected no sign of distress at his execution.”
“People… deserve to know they may end up drowning”
Wellons, like most people put to death in both lethal injection and assisted suicide, was killed using pentobarbital. Patients being euthanized or killed by assisted suicide are typically given barbiturates, which cause paralysis, so onlookers believe they are not in any pain. As Zivot pointed out, there was no sign of distress when Wellons was killed. Yet that doesn’t change the reality of what is happening inside the patient’s body, or their own awareness of what is happening. Zivot noted:
In Oregon, four in five assisted suicides have employed pentobarbital or its close relatives. (The Assisted Dying Bill is based on the Oregon system.) If a post-mortem examination were to be performed on a body after assisted suicide, it’s very likely that similar pulmonary oedema would be found.
So painful is the death from barbiturates that, Zivot said, inmates he has counseled have chosen to be killed using the electric chair rather than by lethal injection. “Advocates of assisted dying owe a duty to the public to be truthful about the details of killing and dying,” he concluded. “People who want to die deserve to know that they may end up drowning, not just falling asleep.”
Zivot isn’t wrong about the horror of assisted suicide, as medical researchers are slowly learning. A study in the medical journal Anaesthesia analyzed data from the Netherlands and found that prolonged, painful deaths from assisted suicide and euthanasia were far from rare, with a third of patients taking 30 hours to die. A small number — 4% — took seven days to die. Various experiments with people killed by assisted suicide have been painful as well, with one drug cocktail reportedly “burning patients’ mouths and throats, causing some to scream in pain.” The same drugs that are considered too risky and experimental to be used for lethal injection are used in assisted suicide.
If assisted suicide organizations like Compassion & Choices were more honest about what people would face and how patients would be killed — using the same drugs as inmates on Death Row — would it still be anywhere near as popular?
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