Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2005 / 24 Teves 5765
Debra J. Saunders
Death with vanity
THERE IS TRUE ROT in a state that regards those who want to kill the sick as more compassionate than those who want to treat the sick, but that is what the state California could become rotten if the Sacramento enacts a measure that would legalize physician-assisted suicide.
Assembly member Patty Berg, D-Eureka, is working on a bill, modeled on Oregon's assisted-suicide law, for California. Why? Her husband died of a stroke in 1987, she told The Chronicle, and "had he survived the stroke, he would not have been able to swallow on his own. I know he would have begged me to hasten his death. And, of course, I would have done it."
I called Berg to discuss her measure, but she could not get back to me by my deadline.
Oncologist H. Rex Greene, medical director of the Dorothy E. Schneider Cancer Center in Burlingame, bristled at Berg's assessment. "It ridiculously oversimplifies the details of decision-making in end-of-life care," he said. If a stroke victim was massively disabled and made it clear that he wanted no artificial feeding, no care on a machine, "that person can refuse feeding and hydration: End of story," he said.
But that's not assisted suicide. There is a world of difference between refusing extraordinary care a basic right and asking a doctor to give you poison. That's why the California Medical Association has opposed assisted suicide.
Oh, but boosters will tell you that the compassionate thing is to support a change in the law to accommodate helpless patients consumed by pain. Such horror stories twice have led Oregon voters to approve assisted-suicide ballot measures.
Yet the 171 people known to have used medical assistance to end their lives under the Oregon law since 1997 don't fit the profile of the helpless and pain-wracked patient sold to Oregon voters, Greene noted. Only 22 percent listed fear of inadequate pain control as their reason for choosing suicide. More telling 87 percent cited fear of losing autonomy.
As Linda Ganzini of the Oregon Health & Science University told the New York Times, the fear that led to most of the assisted-suicides wasn't inadequate care but "for them, the real problem is the people taking care of you."
So while advocates talk about helping people who otherwise might choke to death, the real issue is personal control. These people think they would rather die than lose control; they'd rather die than depend on help from others. So they hide behind the sick as they try to change the rules of medicine when no law prevents them from simply buying a gun.
"The p-word is not 'pain;' the p-word is 'pride', " Oregon oncologist Kenneth Stevens told the New York Times. "Rather than being death with dignity, it's death with vanity."
As an oncologist, Greene said, he has had a dozen patients ask him for help to end their lives. With one sad exception, Greene was able to find out what their concerns were and address them. For example, when a patient explained she had been fighting with her daughter, Greene talked to the daughter, mother and daughter reconciled and the woman died a natural death, free from pain. "But if you live in Oregon," he said, "they say come back in two weeks'' after the 15 day waiting period, to get the lethal dose of medicine.
And get this statement on Oregon's assisted suicide from Dr. Marcia Angell, former executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, to the New York Times: "I am concerned that too few people are requesting it. It seems to me that more would do it. The purpose of a law is to be used not to sit there on the books."
Hmmmm. Not enough people in Oregon are killing themselves?
Something must be done. What are all those sick people doing clinging to life when they should be deleting themselves? What Oregon oncologist Stevens called vanity, Angell told the Times, "somebody else might call admirable independence."
The worst of it is, I said to Greene, people see Angell and Berg as more compassionate than you are.
"I run a palliative-care facility," Greene responded. "We do the heavy- lifting." That is, healing people, relieving their pain and caring about them.
Not killing them.
Note: My husband, Wesley J. Smith, is a consultant to the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.
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