Neumann Tracks History of Assisted Suicide

Scholar and journalist Ann Neumann gave a lecture, “A Time to Die: Religion, Bioethics and the Assisted Suicide Movement,” on April 3 as part of the Lampert Institute’s series of lectures regarding medical issues. Neumann, currently a visiting scholar at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media, edits its publication “The Revealer.”

Neumann began the talk by looking at how the definition of life has changed over the years as new technology has been created to prolong patients’ lives. She focused on three important advances: automated external defibrillators, which can restart hearts, the increased portability of resuscitation with the spread of ambulance services and the ability of respirators to keep people breathing.

“For the first time in modern medical history, the definition of death changed,” Neumann said. “It increasingly relied on the brain’s activity.”

Neumann explored three court cases that brought up the right to die. The first was that of Karen Ann Quinlan, whose parents sued the hospital for the right to remove her feeding tube. In this case, New Jersey courts ruled in her favor and approved the removal of the feeding tube.

Next, Neumann looked at the case of Nancy Cruzan, a woman who was being kept alive after being diagnosed as in a persistent vegetative state. Her parents also sued for the right to remove her feeding tube.

“It’s a case that continues to be cited in many things,” Neumann said. “The Cruzans needed to prove that removing the tube would have been her wish. They did, and she died.”

Neumann brought up some states that have laws regarding choices in death. These are partially the results of work by groups like “Compassion and Choices,” which fight for people’s right to choose to die. One such state is Oregon, which passed a law allowing physician-assisted death. In Oregon, the law became an issue in the courts, but it was held up.

“The justices decided that aid in dying was not a right,” Neumann said. “Death with dignity would stand in Oregon, but it was not approved federally.”

Since then, similar measures have been passed in Washington, Montana and most recently, Vermont. A Death with Dignity law is on appeal in New Mexico, while people are actively working in New Jersey and Massachusetts to pass laws there.

Finally, Neumann looked at one last court case, one that was very public and controversial. Terri Schiavo was being kept alive after being diagnosed as in a persistent vegetative state. Her husband wanted to remove the feeding tube, but her parents and brother did not.

After the tube was removed, her parents appealed the decision and it was put back in. Her parents met with legislators, who called for a rare session of the Senate. Eventually, the feeding tube was removed and Schiavo died.

“There was a media frenzy that did not stop,” Neumann said. “Protesters called hospice workers Nazis, cowards and murderers. Terri’s family felt she was not terminal and with proper care, could have lived a long life.” First-year Jackie Hudepohl said she enjoyed the presentation.

 “I learned a lot about end of life issues,” Hudepohl said. “I didn’t realize quite how big of a deal they were and how many lawsuits and court battles they had contributed to. My favorite part was learning how the laws related to these issues have changed over time.”

Contact Stacey Stein at [email protected]