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A little dignity

FOR THE THIRD YEAR straight, a bill to grant terminally ill patients control of their final days by giving them access to lethal drugs is wending its way through the Legislature. For the third year straight, opponents have weighed in on moral and religious grounds, branding assisted suicide part of a destructive culture of death.

There is little that can be said to alleviate religious objections to a person being the author of his or her own death. Little, that is, except that giving people the power to end their lives does not impinge on those who would reject that power for themselves.

There are more worldly fears, namely that Assembly Bill 374 would offer doctors and insurers an incentive to pressure the terminally ill to choose “death with dignity” or “compassionate care” -- euphemisms for assisted suicide -- for reasons of cost and convenience. But a close examination of the bill, and a look at the assisted-suicide experience in Oregon, should allay those concerns.

Terminal Oregonians who choose to end their lives are not those in the expensive, curative stage of illness, fighting for life and seeking treatment options. Under the terms of the Oregon law, and the parallel but improved bill now moving through the Legislature, patients choose suicide when curative options are exhausted and they are facing much less expensive end-of-life hospice care or other palliative treatment.

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To gain access to lethal drugs under AB 374, a patient must make two requests -- one verbal, one in writing, the latter witnessed by two people unrelated to the patient, unconnected to a health facility where the patient is being treated and ineligible to inherit anything from the patient. Physicians could not administer lethal drugs; this is not a Dr. Kevorkian bill. No one would be able to assist a patient who lacks full possession of his or her faculties; this is not a euthanasia bill.

No family member, doctor or anyone else could make the decision, and only the patient -- after warnings, consultations, psychiatric evaluations, counseling and a waiting period of at least 15 days between the initial request and the writing of the prescription -- could administer the drugs. Neither advanced age nor disability loosen any of the strict requirements for eligibility. Physicians could freely reject requests for lethal drugs.

This bill would not glorify death or cheapen life. On the contrary, it would allow a person full power over his or her life. Its time has come.


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