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BY ELENOR K. SCHOENREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
COLDWATER, Mich. — A number of end-of-life issue stories
coalesced in early June, beginning with the release from prison of “Dr. Death.”
Though he promised not to assist in any more suicides, which
is what got him sent to prison, Dr. Jack Kevorkian said he would continue
advocating legal assisted suicide.
Advocates of the practice might not want the help. Many
don’t appreciate Kevorkian’s “ghoulish” approach to killing patients. One
California lobbyist for assisted suicide believes Kevorkian is the equivalent
of a “back alley abortionist.”
Supporters of assisted suicide emphasize their belief in a
“right to die” and their concern for having “compassionate choices” for the suffering
and those near death.
Looking closely at the situation in Oregon — the only state
with legalized assisted suicide — gives one a different perspective on possible
Dr. William Toffler said that “Kevorkian is really the
personification of the kind of thinking [that is] trying to institutionalize
situational killing by presenting it not only as being reasonable, but as a
National director of the Oregon-based Physicians for
Compassionate Care Educational Foundation, Toffler suggested: “We are turning
compassion — which means to ‘suffer with’ — upside down. It has become
‘dispassionate care,’ where killing occurs for utilitarian motives.”
The information on the website for Physicians for
Compassionate Care illustrates Oregon’s slide into assisted suicide.
The law states that patients must be competent, capable of
self-dosing the pills, not depressed, have made the choice without coercion,
and have life expectancies of less than six months. According to media
accounts, however, the patients who have died by lethal dosage are depressed,
have dementia, have been coerced, have swallowing problems, and have lived over
a year after being determined eligible.
Between 2003 and 2006, less than 5% of those who have died
received any psychological counseling. In 2002, the organization Last Acts
reported that good pain management and palliative and hospice care are
disappearing in Oregon.
A total of 85,000 poor and seriously ill patients were
dropped from the rolls of the Oregon Health Plan between 2003 and 2004. Toffler
remarked that Oregon Health Plan “limits in-home hospice care, but offers 100%
coverage for assisted suicide, listing it as ‘pain management.’”
The government depends on reports by attending physicians,
but they are rarely present for these deaths as the lethal drugs are
self-administered. Actual death rates are unknown.
Physicians for Compassionate Care noted that Oregon’s annual
reports on deaths are missing “critical data;” reports from previous years were
destroyed by the Department of Human Services.
These facts, however, have not dampened an ongoing campaign
for similar legislation around the country.
Since 1991 when Washington failed to pass a “death with
dignity” bill, other state legislatures have repeatedly introduced
assisted-suicide legislation without success. This year, Arizona, Hawaii and
Vermont made unsuccessful attempts, with Wisconsin presenting a bill in April.
In 1992, California voted down a law similar to
Washington’s. Recently, it tried again, for the third time, but California’s
Compassionate Choices Act was shelved June 7 because it lacked enough votes for
But the bill might be resurrected in January, according to
Will Shuck, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Patty Berg.
Carol Hogan, communications director of the California
Conference of Catholic Bishops, was distressed that the bill was perceived by
opponents as merely “bad public policy.”
“It sounds cold-blooded,” she remarked, but some people
support the idea that “it is cheaper to have patients kill themselves than to
pay to keep them comfortable.”
A large coalition fought the legislation in California,
including all 35,000 members of the California Medical Association. The
association proclaimed that assisted suicide was “unethical, unacceptable, and
is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer. … The
association believes in humane and compassionate care for the terminally ill …
appropriate pain control and counseling for the dying and their families.”
On to Washington
A ballot issue in November 2008 for an Oregon-style
assisted-suicide bill in Washington state is the goal of former Gov. Booth
Gardner, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. “When I go, I want to decide,”
he announced as his reason for starting an initiative drive.
Dominican Sister Sharon Park, executive director of the
Washington State Catholic Conference, said that “nothing is certain” on the
future of Gardner’s initiative, but the effort is being carefully watched.
Dan Kennedy, CEO of Human Life of Washington, said that
Compassion and Choices, the renamed Hemlock Society, is pushing
assisted-suicide initiatives. And he believes that coalition building,
especially with disability groups, creates a powerful voice in opposition.
The main antidote, according to Church teaching, is support,
not abandonment of the dying. That was addressed most recently in a pastoral
letter Maryland’s Catholic bishops issued June 6. “Comfort and Consolation:
Care of the Sick and Dying” aims at helping Catholics apply their faith to
Caregivers must never be indifferent to human suffering, the
bishops said. If a dying person needs increasingly greater dosages of pain
medication, the bishops said it is morally acceptable for the patient or caregiver
to provide the medication “even if the patient is made less alert or
responsive, or if this increase should hasten death.”
“Pain medication, however, must never be given for the
purpose of hastening death,” they said.
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Value and
Inviolability of Human Life), Pope John Paul II emphasizes good palliative care
that seeks “to make suffering more bearable in the final stages of illness and
to ensure that the patient is supported and accompanied in his or her ordeal.”
This is mirrored in the work of Eileen Brown Geller, a
hospice nurse and the past director of Washington’s 1991 “119-Vote No”
campaign. She said that all these initiatives will stop “when we finally
realize why people feel a need to have it available.”
Geller referred to her solution as “networks of lived
compassion in action.”
Elenor Schoen is based in