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Start the Presses: Debating doctor-assisted death

About two weeks ago, I received a letter from a La Cañada high school student, Olivia Garland, who wrote to me as part of a class project on persuasive writing.

The topic, physician-assisted suicide, is very timely as the California legislature this week began debating a bill that would allow doctors to provide medication allowing terminally ill patients to end their lives. Below is my reply to the letter.

Ms. Garland:

Thank you for taking the time to write. Your topic is a difficult one, and I applaud you for taking it on. Please forgive me for not using your form, but the years of scribbling into reporter notebooks have left my handwriting all but illegible.

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It seems we are in agreement about the ethics of physician-assisted suicide. I too believe it should be an option for people facing terminal illness, allowing people to die in peace rather than prolonging a life pointlessly.

It’s interesting to note that most doctors — facing late-stage cancer or other chronic illnesses — decline many of the treatments they give to others, preferring quality of life over quantity. Is a doctor-managed death that much different? Logically, no, but there is a serious societal, moral and religious pushback against the practice.

Though there is no official religion in America, the largest group of believers are Christian. Generally, members of this group believe suicide — for any reason — is a sin, and potentially punishable by eternal damnation. With such opprobrium, it’s of little wonder why so many terminally ill people decide to cling to whatever string of life they have left regardless of the suffering they must endure to do so.

That’s because the pain, the thinking goes, is fleeting, while the reward of heaven — or the punishment of hell — is eternal. Such a choice is stomach turning, and a cruel weight on a dying person. That would not change with a law allowing physician-assisted suicide, but it would remove the disapproval of the state from what is at its core a moral choice.

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I take a jaundiced view of governmental intrusion on private matters, particularly when sole motivation for the law seems to be a moral one. The law should simply prevent people from harming one another, or providing for fair punishment when they do. The debate, I feel, stems from the meaning of the word “harm.” But the doctor is not harming a dying patient who wishes to die. Instead, that patient is being helped.

There would need to be regulations in place, to make sure the decision was not a fleeting or rash one and that the person was mentally competent. But these are details, and ones that could be easily worked out. The bill currently being considered in Sacramento would limit such suicides to people who have an incurable illness that is likely to kill them in six months or fewer. That seems reasonable to me.

Still, the way each of us were raised creates all sorts of waves throughout society. In the newspaper business, for example, there are all manner of rules regarding when we do and don’t report on suicides. In general, we report on suicides if they occur in public — a person jumping off a building, for instance — but not if they are done in private.

But we must be careful, and not simply because most American newsrooms have traditional Western mores. There is a real thing called “suicide contagion,” where ham-handed coverage of a death can push others over the edge.

Doctors — being scientists themselves — rightly worry about that sort of thing, which is why the idea of physician-assisted suicide is so controversial in medical circles as well as in the general public. And, don’t forget, a medical professional would cause the death — anathema to the reason many got into the field.

Regardless of all this, the debate loses sight — as you rightly point out — that at its heart is a sick and suffering person. Death is part of life, and as human beings, we should legally have the right to embrace the peace of the grave if desired.

Frankly, I doubt I could make such a decision. I was raised Catholic, still practice, and have a healthy fear of the next dimension. But should my belief system forbid others? The answer, clearly, is no.

Thank you again for taking the time to write. I hope this starts a conversation and perhaps some long-needed change in our laws.

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DAN EVANS is the editor. He can be reached at (818) 627-3234 or dan.evans@latimes.com.


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