By Helen Ubiñas, Hartford Courant, October 8, 2009
John Welles loaded his old .38-caliber revolver, bent his tiring frame over a walker to make his way out to his garden and laid down.
His friend Hunt Williams, who’d just cleaned the gun, suggested where Welles should aim the revolver and then began walking the 100 or so yards up the driveway.
“God bless — ” Williams called out.
But before he could finish the sentence, Williams heard the shot.
It’s been about five years since Williams was charged, and later granted a special form of probation, for helping his 66-year-old friend end the excruciating pain from advanced prostate cancer that was eating away at his bones. And while Williams’ story has been told often in the years since, something struck me Wednesday as he recalled the chilling details again — this time at a press conference in Hartford announcing a lawsuit aimed at preventing physicians from being prosecuted for prescribing drugs to end a person’s life.
We’ve been here before, of course. Advocates trying to legislate a person’s right to die. There was a bill introduced last year, but it didn’t go very far.
And the opposition wasted no time making it clear that it will do whatever it can to ensure that this latest attempt won’t go very far, either. Michael Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, told reporters that the church opposes the lawsuit and will attempt to intervene.
“… Life is sacred from conception to natural death,” Culhane said.
Well, that’s one argument. Another is “do no harm,” the oath doctors take. And those who oppose assisted suicide echo that sentiment, arguing that it is not the right or responsibility of anyone to choose when someone else dies.
But listening to Williams, it was clear that harm is being done.
To people like Williams, brave enough to stand by his friend, compelled by love to do what the state won’t allow, what those who oppose say no one has the right to do.
And to people like Welles, forced in his darkest hour to inflict the kind of violence on himself that no one should have to resort to in a desperate attempt to end unfathomable pain.
Sheldon Smith, who also spoke Wednesday, has a plan. A living will and a bottle of sleeping pills for the moment the 86- year-old decides that the pain from his fourth-stage abdominal cancer becomes unbearable, that his terminal illness has robbed him of a life worth living.
“I want to leave this world with the same dignity with which I’ve lived my life,” he said.
Smith has already held a farewell party to celebrate his life — with a live band and lots of moving words from friends and family.
But again, Smith is on his own.
I understand the misgivings some might have; I have a few myself. As I spoke to Smith after the press conference, I wondered how this man who still seemed so full of life would know when the right time was, how he’d differentiate between a bad day and the day.
But that’s a decision for Smith to make, one that we should all be able to make for ourselves. And more important, that we should respect.
“It’s time for the courts to make it clear that John Welles deserved better, that I deserved better and that terminal patients and their families in our great state of Connecticut deserve better,” Williams said at the end of his speech.
He’s right. If we have a right to live as we choose, we should have the right to die as we choose as well.