Within the next two decades, the elderly population in the United States will reach its zenith, comprising 73 million individuals, 20 percent of the nation, the baby boomers' final surge. The process of their dying may become contentious. Should policymakers and bioethicists be satisfied with our current approach to dying, or should they begin now to reconceptualize it? We distill end-of-life discussions in the bioethics literature and popular press, paying particular attention to physician-assisted suicide and its uptake where legal. Evidence so far indicates that few of the dying opt for this alternative, suggesting that its role in assuring “death with dignity” cannot be, as may have been hoped, a leading one. The end-of-life literature on the whole lends credence to the fear that most of the dying, along with their families and physicians, will muddle through a morass of uncoordinated options, with futile medical intervention the most prominent outcome — despite more palliative strategies, such as home hospice care, being favorably described. We found no reason to recommend persistence in our current approach to dying and found good reason to urge early, conscientious, and thoroughgoing reconceptualization in policy and practice as well as in theory.
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Vol. 35 • No. 2