Those suffering from a fatal disease often would prefer to choose the time and manner of their death but are unable to do so under the laws that prevail in most of the United States. Assisting in a voluntary death is a crime in most states. Physicians and relatives who provide drugs that could offer a peaceful exit face being prosecuted for murder. In such cases, fasting can be a solution.
That’s the route that Rosemary Bowen, 94, chose. The former school reading specialist had been in good health and leading an active lifestyle in the Friendship Heights area of Washington, D.C., until she hurt her back last fall and suffered a spinal compression injury, according to an account in the Washington Post.
She spent a few weeks in rehab after the injury and then reluctantly agreed to try out an assisted-living facility. But after only two days, Bowen told her family that she did not want to continue living if it meant she had to be helped with the simplest of daily tasks — dressing, washing and so forth. Instead, she said, she wanted to starve herself — and, more than that, she wanted to make a video record of her fast as an example of others.
According to the Post report, her daughter and other family members initially objected but Bowen had long expressed a fear of being confined to a nursing home with elderly visitors “shuffling in and out of rest homes visiting me.”
She asked her daughter, Mary Beth Bowen, to make a daily video of the process and, with that, she said her good-byes, stopped eating and died in her sleep on the eighth day of her fast. The 16-minute video was shown for the first time recently at a senior services center near Bowen’s former home.
Numbers may be growing
No one knows how many people end their lives through fasting but the number is thought to be growing. Formally known as Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking (VSED), the practice is not prohibited by law, although some attorneys caution that there could be some legal risks for those who encourage or assist in deaths by fasting under certain circumstances.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has affirmed the right of a mentally capable individual to refuse medical therapies, including food and fluids and many hospice organizations and physicians will provide comfort care for those who choose this route, the advocacy group Death With Dignity notes.
The process can take several days to several weeks and should not be attempted without assistance, according to Compassion and Choices, an organization that supports voluntary end-of-life choices.
A recent study found that those over 95 often hope for a quick and peaceful death. Advocates say fasting may be the solution for many of them.