Do terminally ill Mississippians deserve the right to choose when they die?
*Warning: This article discusses suicide and suicidal ideation.
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - “Oh, and here is where I intend to die,” Clyde Morgan says nonchalantly, gesturing towards his queen-sized bed. On either side, shelves stacked with row upon row of VHS tapes and DVDs, the movies he plans to watch in his final hours.
Morgan is an 82-year-old man living in Brandon, Mississippi. He’s married with two daughters, four grandchildren and owns a shooting range in Forest. He is a Vietnam veteran and a past college instructor with an interest in parachuting and holds degrees in science, social work, and theology.
And he plans on one day taking his own life.
For 82, Morgan is healthy and spritely, and, in conversation, his responses are often lengthy and well thought out.
Like many, he has given a great deal of thought to death and how one makes that final transition. When speaking with Morgan, he relays the stories of two transitions which have stuck with him.
One involves his grandmother, who he watched wither away in a bed inside an unkempt West Jackson nursing home. I want to die, I want to die, oh God, I want to die, he remembers her chanting. She would languish for six weeks before finally passing away.
The next story is about his dog, Buddy, who was by his side for 17 years. As Morgan once wrote in a blog post, in Buddy’s final days, his body was stricken with arthritis, and he was in a constant state of pain. “I was determined, since I could not heal him, to end his suffering and mine,” he wrote. “Hard choice.”
“[I] didn’t want to do that, but I had to do that,” Morgan stated. “I cannot do that for her,” he said, speaking of his wife, “or my daughters, or my mother, or my father, because of something here in Mississippi that says no.”
These stories, the deaths of his grandmother and of his pet dog, are building blocks on which Morgan has built his doctrine: Physician-assisted suicide should be a right granted to Mississippians.
Physician-assisted suicide burst onto the scene in October of 1997, when the state of Oregon passed the Death with Dignity Act. This bill was the first of its kind in the U.S., granting the terminally ill who have been given six months to live the right to end their life by taking lethal medications.
Since then, 2,159 Oregonians have chosen to die this way, their average age being 73. Most were enrolled in hospice and most chose physician-assisted suicide after losing autonomy.
Nine states and the District of Columbia have now joined Oregon, enacting similar Death with Dignity laws.
In 2017, in a wave of physician-assisted suicide bills across the country, the Mississippi Death with Dignity Act was written. Although receiving a spark of interest on social media, the bill went nowhere, dying with a whimper in committee.
Senator Robert L. Jackson of Mississippi’s 11th District authored that bill. He said that, at that time, Death with Dignity was a topic of national intrigue. That’s why he wrote the bill in the first place. Yet, he soon realized that “it wasn’t such a hot issue in the South, and in Mississippi especially.”
He described the reaction to the Mississippi Death with Dignity Act in the legislature as akin to filing a gun control bill. He thought the physician-assisted suicide topic was at least worthy of a debate, “but because we’re the Bible Belt, people didn’t feel the same way.”
Indeed, in Mississippi, where 83% of the population identifies as Christian, and in the most Baptist state in the country, physician-assisted suicide would face obvious headwinds.
The Southern Baptist Convention “vigorously” denounces physician-assisted suicide “as an appropriate means of treating suffering.” The Roman Catholic Church is also heavily opposed, with one staff ethicist putting it, “We don’t have the authority to take into our hands when life will end. That’s the Creator’s decision.”
Like Sen. Jackson, Morgan also believes that religion has played a vital role as to why Death with Dignity has gained little traction in the state.
“Surveys reveal that because of religious beliefs[,] my home state of Mississippi and forty others will not grant to me what I gave to my dog – the right to die, the right to end my suffering[,] if I were suffering[,] or to end the indignities and expense I would involuntarily, unintentionally inflict on my wonderful relatives and caretakers during my extended period of dying,” he once wrote.
He also blames the lack of support on what he says is people viewing the act through an emotional lens rather than an intellectual one. But that has not discouraged him in his fight, and, as we talked, he told me about what he hopes to be his future makeshift death with dignity.
As we stood in his bedroom, he explained that when he intends to die, he’ll intentionally make himself weaker by going without food or water, a process known as Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking or (VSED). “And then finally close that door and probably take about two weeks to die in here.”
Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in America, with over half being performed with a firearm. One of Morgan’s own friends took his life this way, doing so, Morgan said, to keep from becoming an emotional and financial burden on his family.
Morgan says that taking your life this way is both violent and disturbing to all who encounter it, another reason why he advocates so strongly for physician-assisted suicide.
He makes it clear that he does not want to die, however, he is also not afraid of death.
He’s also not afraid of any persecution he might face in trying to make Death with Dignity a reality in Mississippi, saying, “If I don’t have the right to choose when and how I die, am I free?”
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