Death + Biology Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

Radiolab short on Medical Doctors and their End-of-Life Choices

The Bitter End
Radiolab short (January 15, 2013)
We turn to doctors to save our lives — to heal us, repair us, and keep us healthy. But when it comes to the critical question of what to do when death is at hand, there seems to be a gap between what we want doctors to do for us, and what doctors want done for themselves.

This past week, the WNYC’s Radiolab ran a really good short on death, dying, and end-of-life choices. The show, The Bitter End, focused on the fascinating Johns Hopkins Precursors Study which asks Medical Doctors the following:

What are your preferences “…for treatment given a scenario of irreversible brain injury without terminal illness.”

The study has found time and time again that Medical Doctors do not want most (if any) medical treatments that would prolong their lives in this given situation. This finding stands in contrast to members of the general public who generally do want aggressive, life-prolonging treatments. The Radiolab reporters do a good job discussing these medical options with all kinds of people. You should also read the Radiolab blog post, which covers the Precursors Study.

The show flagged up, once again, an issue that the Death Reference Desk has been asking readers since it started: How much and what kind of end-of-life care you want?

This is a question, as most people can see, that only individuals can answer themselves and we here at Death Ref would encourage everyone to have this conversation with their next-of-kin. The Radiolab story captures precisely this kind of conversation between host Jad Abumrad and his Medical Doctor father.

The radio short also mentions, albeit briefly, a form of Do Not Resuscitate tattoo. Regular Death Ref readers will of course remember the recent run of DNR tattoo posts: Do Not Resuscitate this Tattoo or the Person Attached to It and Do Not Resuscitate Tattoos Cannot be Stopped.

Coincidentally, the New York Times ran a blog post today entitled When the Patient Knows Best and it covers many of the points in the Radiolab story.

Many thanks to Radiolab for putting the programme together.

Death Ethics Suicide

Will Self on the Right to Die

Terminal Thoughts
Will Self, BBC Radio 4 (January 11, 2013)

UK Writer Will Self put together a very good BBC Radio essay on suicide and choosing to die. You can also find Self’s writings on end-of-life issues on his blog.

The radio essay is about 10 minutes long. It’s good. Give it a listen.

Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

The Right to Die in 2013

A Life Worth Ending
The era of medical miracles has created a new phase of aging, as far from living as it is from dying. A son’s plea to let his mother go.
Michael Wolff, New York Magazine (May 20, 2012)


The Suicide Plan
Frontline, WGBH Boston (November 2012)

If there is anything that the Death Reference Desk can safely predict for 2013, it is this: right to die and assisted dying cases will continue to both happen and capture public attention.

I was catching up on some 2012 reading during the holidays and finally read Michael Wolff’s article in New York Magazine about watching his mother die. It is an exceptionally well written piece and it truly captures the following biomedical paradox: preventing death at every turn often makes living unbearable– for both the individual and next-of-kin.

One of Wolff’s key points is that the current generation of aging adults watching their elderly parents decline will most certainly impact how these same aging adults want to die. He is absolutely correct, and I do not foresee that situation lessening to any degree.

It was after I read Wolff’s article that I finally got a chance to watch the Frontline documentary, The Suicide Plan. I never intended these back-to-back end-of-life activities but they absolutely complemented each other.

The Frontline documentary is worth watching, if for any reason, it is a sign of what is to come regarding individuals who want to end their lives because of terminal illness. Death Ref has covered these kinds of cases before and will continue to do so into the future. The key issue is less about the actual suicide and more about if another person assists in the death. What exactly constitutes “assisting” or “to assist” takes on all kinds of meanings. Frontline examines a number of assisted dying cases in just this way.

Both Wolff’s article and The Suicide Plan share an important argument: forcing terminally ill individuals to live when they want to die, requires both collective, national debates (i.e., as part of health care laws) and individual, personal conversations so that next-of-kin know (and can document) what kind of death a person wants.

Writing about these end-of-life items reminded me of Tony Nicklinson’s right to die case in the UK. Two good articles on Nicklinson here and here.

Death cannot ultimately be stopped. That’s the central dilemma confronted by both Frontline and Wolff (and the modern West writ large). Different kinds of researchers are certainly looking for a method to delay the aging process and dying by extension but those medical innovations (if actually desirable) are longer term possibilities.

Until that future arrives, many people will continue to choose death.

Watch The Suicide Plan on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Death + the Law Death Ethics

New York Times Editorial on End of Life Care

Care at the End of Life
The New York Times (November 24, 2012)

Really good editorial in today’s New York Times on end-of-life decision making. The editorial sums up the issues and makes a clear and cogent case as to why advanced planning directives make sense.

Here’s to hoping the changes to American health insurance coverage eventually cover end-of-life discussions between patients and doctors.

Go go Gray Lady!


Photo by Chalmers Butterfield

Death + the Law Death Ethics

Assisted Dying Law on the Ballot in Massachusetts come Tuesday

Over My Dead Body: Helping the Terminally Ill to Die, Once Taboo, is Gaining Acceptance
The Economist (October 20th, 2012)


Assisted Suicide Goes To Vote In Massachusetts
Sacha Pfeiffer, National Public Radio (October 25, 2012)

A quick pre-election 2012 Death Reference Desk style(!) post about a proposed Assisted Dying law in Massachusetts (state motto: By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.)

Should a terminally ill patient with less than six months to live have the right to a doctor’s assistance with committing suicide? Massachusetts voters will decide on Tuesday. If so, Massachusetts will become the third state to do so after Oregon and Washington.

The proposed Massachusetts law is very similar to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which is widely regarded as a model assisted dying law.

The National Public Radio print article and radio piece are quite good on giving the backstory to the Massachusetts vote.

The New York Times ran an op-ed by writer Ben Mattlin last week that presents Mattlin’s concerns about the ballot vote: Suicide by Choice? Not So Fast.

Not much else to say, other than we at the Death Reference Desk will keep an eye on Tuesday’s vote and report any developments.