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The right to die: How issues divide us

Maxwell Matson, columnist

While this column is nowhere near thorough enough to do justice to the long and complex history of the right to die in the United States, it is meant to serve as a brief introduction to the issue and is therefore intentionally concise.

Amongst the political right and left there is constant debate over the rights that U.S. citizens, usually women, have to their bodies. While such issues are certainly of extreme relevance given the current political climate, one issue that tends to ebb and flow in political relevance is the right to die. Right to die has been both controversial and completely ignored here in the United States, and while it is one of only a few issues that could potentially affect the lives of every and anyone, it has somehow managed to gain only limited notoriety amidst a sea of general ambivalence.

Right to die is defined as a conscious decision, usually on the part of a medical professional, to either forgo medical intervention necessary to extend the life expectancy of a patient who is terminally ill or, more controversially, to take deliberate action to end the life of the patient (upon the patient's request in either case). While this is usually what is referred to when the term "right to die" is used, it has various meanings to different people/groups across the U.S. and essentially boils down to the right to choose suicide of one form or another at one's own discretion given the presence of physical or mental anguish which cannot foreseeably be alleviated in one's own natural lifetime.

So why doesn't right to die receive the same attention in the political arena as other hot-button issues regarding the rights of citizens to their bodies? The simple answer is that the issue is too complex to take a stand on. By the nature of our bipartisan political system, an issue like right to die, while certainly controversial, crosses partisan lines in a manner which does not allow for it to be neatly packaged and sold as a two-sided issue. Unlike the issue of abortion, where the members of one group brand themselves "pro-choice," and the other use the equally divisive "pro-life," there is no convenient rhetoric that can be used to sway the massive majority of people who are still on the fence about the issue without oversimplifying it beyond recognition.

The closest that we got to a straight answer regarding right to die from the major political parties in the 2016 election was Hillary Clinton's statement on new "Death with Dignity" laws in Oregon. These laws allow for a patient to receive a physician-assisted death with the caveat that they are of sound mind and are terminally ill with less than six months to live. While certainly not the first state to implement such laws, which only satisfy the least controversial definition of right to die, the new legislature was still repackaged as a dilemma of state's rights by Hillary Clinton: "I believe it's within the province of the states to make that decision. I commend Oregon on this count, as well, because whether I agree with it or not or think it's a good idea or not, the fact that Oregon is breaking new ground and providing valuable information as to what does and doesn't work when it comes to end-of-life questions, I think, is very beneficial..." In possibly the most divisive and contentious election in recent American history, such a wishy-washy answer on any topic is almost unheard of. What's even more unheard of? Silence from the Trump camp on almost any issue. But that's exactly what we got. A weak "yes" (if one can call it that) from the Democrats, and total silence from the Republicans.

While I am aware that it is atypical of an "opinion" piece not to contain a stated opinion regarding the issue of concern, I like most other Americans simply can't decide how I feel about right to die. In today's world it has become all too easy to let other people speak for you, to allow "him" to dictate your stance on every issue because you don't like "her" stance on just one of them. As a country we're so absorbed in our red and blue bubbles that we fail to see the shades of purple all around us. Right to die serves as a reminder that when the people we elect to office can't manufacture two sides to every argument, they simply disregard the issue entirely. Although it is difficult to distance ourselves from political issues which we feel personally connected to, it is imperative to realize that somewhere beyond all the rhetoric is a complex problem which requires more than partisan loyalty to be solved.