In 2005, John Rehm, husband of radio producer and NPR host Diane Rehm, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In 2012, John entered assisted living.
After two years of continuous decline, John made the decision to die. Euthanasia is illegal in his home state, so John’s only avenue was to cease eating, drinking and taking medication.(4)
Voluntary stopping of eating and drinking (VSED) is the life-ending choice made by a competent individual who refuses to eat or drink in order to hasten death.(2)
A patient who chooses VSED usually dies within one to two weeks. John died in 10 days.
“He had said 10 days earlier he was ready to die, and it took him that long. It shouldn’t have, I don’t believe, taken him that long,” Diane told NPR.
“VSED can be an important option for some suffering patients who wish an earlier death, but the meaning attached to this practice can vary considerably from a welcomed, patient-controlled escape to an absurd end that adds to suffering as much or more than alleviating it,” wrote Timothy Quill, MD in the Annals of Family Medicine.
Definition of Terms
Let’s define our terms. VSED is not considered suicide and is legal in the United States. Other forms of intentional ending of life include euthanasia, suicide and assisted dying.(1)
Euthanasia is an intervention undertaken to cause death with the intention of relieving suffering.
Assisted Suicide is the act of one person helping another kill himself or herself.
Assisted Dying, a term used in the United States and the U.K., is the act of assisted suicide for the terminally ill only.
In the United States, California, Oregon, Washington and Vermont have laws permitting assisted dying according to the BBC.
Worldwide, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg permit euthanasia and assisted suicide. Switzerland permits assisted suicide if the person assisting “acts unselfishly.” Colombia permits euthanasia.(1)
Religious Views on End-of-Life Issues
The Pew Research Center gathered data on how the scholars and ethicists of the world’s religions view choice in end-of-life matters.
Most major religions place an emphasis on the value of human life as a gift from God and oppose assisted suicide. Unitarians are the exception, advocating “the right to self-determination in dying.”(3)
Islam and Catholicism believe one’s length of life and time of death are God’s to decide. Buddhism teaches it is morally wrong to end a human life, including one’s own. Hinduism has concerns that the ending of one’s own life may affect one’s karma. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism prohibit any form of assisted suicide. (3)
At the same time, all the major religions accept a terminally ill patient’s choice not to seek extraordinary measures to prolong life.
Diane Rehm, herself an Episcopalian, works with Compassion and Choices, an end-of-life organization.
Speaking of John’s final choice, Diane said, “He wanted to relinquish life. He didn’t commit suicide. He wanted to let go of life and be on to the next journey.”
See the full interview with Rehm here.
Reviewed July 25, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
1) Assisted dying: What does the law in different countries say? BBC.com. Retrieved July 21, 2016.
2) Voluntary Stopping of Eating and Drinking (VSED), Physician-Assisted Death (PAD), or Neither in the Last Stage of Life? Both Should be Available as a Last Resort. NIH.gov. Retrieved July 22, 2016.
3) Religious Groups’ Views on End-of-Life Issues. PewForum.org. Retrieved July 21, 2016.
4) Diane Rehm shares the painful story of her husband’s death. PBS.org. Retrieved July 21, 2016.