by Dottie Lam
March 10, 2013
Let’s say you are terminally ill, and someone asks if you would like to have the choice to end your life when you no longer want to struggle or suffer, and to have a physician help you do it.
Close to 80 percent of you would answer “yes.”
However, if you were asked if this choice should be enacted into law, you would be less sure. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, only 45 percent of you would agree that a terminally ill patient should have the legal right to receive lethal medicine from a physician and then self-administer it to achieve a peaceful death.
Legislation to allow physician aid in dying has long been controversial, even when people admit wanting it themselves. This is partially because its opponents have conjured up such scare phrases as “death panels,” “slippery slopes,” and “mercy killings.”
And opponents continue these fear tactics despite the fact that the Oregon Death with Dignity Act passed in 1994 belies all of the above fabrications. The Oregon law, enacted in part through the efforts of Compassion and Choices — the only consumer advocacy group in the Nation for those facing end of life issues — includes very stringent protections:
• To receive a lethal prescription from a doctor, two physicians must confirm that the person is terminal and has six months or less to live.
• The patient must be of sound mind when requesting the prescription, and must make the request twice verbally at least 15 days apart.
• The person must then make a written request witnessed by someone other than a family member or caregiver.
• The patient then can administer the medicine at a time of his choosing and must administer it himself. The only “assist” from the physician is filling the prescription.
In Oregon, there has been no evidence of any “slippery slope” that would abuse the poor, the uninsured, minority populations, or the otherwise disenfranchised. In fact, a study of those terminally ill patients who have requested lethal medicine reveals exactly the opposite characteristics: 97 percent are white; 67 percent have attended college; and 98 are insured.
Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices and a former nurse and physician assistant, is proud of the fact the organization lobbied for the Oregon law, along with the more recent Death with Dignity Law in Washington state and a Montana Supreme Court ruling which allows the same.
However, in a speech to board members and supporters in Denver last month, she emphasized that it is the care, the education and the advocacy the group does for the dying in general that is even more important.
Nationally, Compassion & Choices has grown by 30,000 members over the past three years, and expects to grow it by 12,000 more this year.
Although Colorado has no law allowing physicians to assist dying patients with a lethal prescription, that could change. Various versions of such legislation are presently being considered in at least six other states. Coombs Lee says that physician aid in dying is an issue in which “the people are way ahead of the politicians.”
No wonder, when you realize that baby boomers, who are now retiring at the rate of 10,000 a day, will want control over their deaths just as they have always wanted control over their lives.
Dr. Charles Hamlin, a retired Denver surgeon and member of both the National and Colorado Boards of Compassion & Choices, calls control over one’s death, the “major civil rights movement of the next 10 or 15 years.”
Is there, just perhaps, someone in the Colorado legislature who would want to “catch up with the people” and lead this burgeoning civil rights movement?
I hope so.