In June, Carol Bernstein Ferry took her own life in the presence of family members, as she had told them she would after receiving a fatal diagnosis. Before she died she wrote an open letter explaining her decision. We publish it as an eloquent statement of the arguments for the "right to die."
If my death can contribute to an understanding of euthanasia, then I want it to do so. That is why I am writing this letter, explaining why I choose to take active steps to end my life rather than waiting for death to come gradually. With this letter I also want to make it clear that, although I have the support and tacit agreement of my children and close friends, no one but myself will take the steps that cause death. It is unfortunate that I must say this; our laws are at a destructive point just now, so if anyone other than myself actually causes my death, that person will be liable to conviction as a felon. What an absurdity! To help someone facing a time–whether short or long–of pain and distress, whose death coming bit by bit can cause major sorrow and anxiety to family and friends, not to mention the medical help, quite useless, that must be expended in order to maintain a bearable level of pain–that this sensible deed can be construed a crime is a blot on our legal system and on our power of thought.
I have known since last June that I am terminally ill. Emphysema, a tumor in my chest and recently a new tumor near my pelvis put it beyond question that I am on the way to death. This seems to me in no way a tragedy–I am, after all, 76 years old–but a natural ending. I don't feel called upon to suffer until the last minute of a creeping death, nor do I want to put my children through such a time, so I am choosing to make a finish while I am still able to function.
I've had a lucky life. I've had a lot of joy; I've had enough sorrow to know that I'm a member in good standing of the human race; I have tried to make myself useful. I have nothing to complain about, certainly not death. I feel lucky now, in that I have been given a somewhat definite span of life ahead. Once the approximate limit of that span–six months to a year from last June–got absorbed into my brain, many problems floated away. I no longer have to worry about death, as it is with me now. Every day is a treat, an extra gift, the positive side of the expression Borrowed Time. It is my hope that people close to me, especially my children, can also enjoy this relaxed attitude toward something that is, after all, inevitable. The idea that I can probably manage to have a peaceful and relatively painless ending is a comfort. For that probability to be a certainty would be the best comfort of all. But that certainty could only come if I were to have the help of a second person, and that I will not have, as under present law that person would be in immediate danger.
The moral beauty of suffering for its own sake is important to many, for reasons that I find unfathomable. Religious pressure, the idea that God enjoys our suffering, is beyond me. And the terrible attitude of our lawmakers and politicians, considering that any help toward a painless death should be punished, is a source of wonder and shame. A few states–notably Oregon and Maine–are trying to change their laws to allow the administration of painkilling medicine even if it hastens the moment of death. Even this moderate and humane act is being fought in legislatures of some states and in the Senate. The idea that human life is sacred no matter the condition or the desire of the person seems to me irrational.
The people who think that it is immoral to make a rational decision about ending life certainly have the right to consider their own death in this light and to endure to the very end whatever pain awaits them and their families. But they have flowed over into the idea that it is their right also to control those others of us who view the matter differently. There are societies here and there that do not put up roadblocks when a person decides to end life. However, the idea that each person's life is his own is too radical or too abstruse for consumption in the United States. This is the attitude that I hope will change, and soon. It is the attitude that I hope to help soften by explaining that my suicide plan is bringing me and those close to me a measure of security that my life can end in as spirited a way as possible.
I appreciate everyone who has been involved in encouraging me, including those who have not encouraged me but who have withstood the temptation to reprimand me. My decision has been arrived at after many years of contemplation, not quickly or casually. I hope it will help others to feel all right about preferring a peaceful, benign path into death.