Thursday, March 18, 2010

Assisted Suicide Is Still Around

      The following excerpt is from Newsweek, March 15, 2010:
     
In 2006 John Celmer's body began to break down. He was diagnosed with oral cancer and had to undergo surgery to remove the tumor and then radiation therapy to kill off any remaining malignant cells. The radiation ravaged his jawbone and the surrounding tissue, leaving a hole in his chin. Fluid leaked onto his clothes. His teeth began falling out. He had difficulty eating and speaking. As Celmer's jaw began severing from his face, doctors attempted moderate treatments, but all of them failed. So in 2008, they sought to reconstruct his chin and jaw using tissue from his chest and bone from his lower leg. The procedures appeared successful, but five days after the final operation, he was discovered dead in his Cumming, Ga., home.
      At first everyone assumed he'd died of natural causes. Yet as Celmer's wife, Susan, sifted through his belongings, she discovered several things that puzzled her: a receipt for two helium tanks, a handwritten note referring to his need to acquire a "hood," an entry on his calendar (May 7, 2008: "Claire here @ 1:30") that mentioned someone she didn't know. Susan also found paperwork referencing something called Final Exit Network (FEN). As she later learned, it was an organization that counseled people with serious ailments on how to commit suicide. She shared her findings with police, who launched an investigation and eventually concluded that the group had helped Celmer kill himself. Susan was devastated—and enraged. What right did FEN have to help usher her husband to his death? "We are not the Creator," she told NEWSWEEK. "We do not give life and don't have the option to take life."
      Although it has been out of the news for some time, the assisted suicide movement is still active. The above story, and several others like it, have resurrected a flurry of activity in states and courts across the USA. Last December the Montana Supreme Court ruled that state law protects doctors in Montana from prosecution for assisting in suicide. Two states, Washington and Oregon allow doctors to participate in suicide, but those laws were enacted as a result of state-wide referendums.
      The Final Exit Network mentioned in the above article is one of several organizations which are active in the assisted suicide field. The best known one, the Hemlock Society, which has since been folded into Compassion and Choices, was founded in 1980 by Derek Humphry. Humphry was the author of the best-selling Jean’s Way, the story of his wife’s struggle against breast cancer. When she could stand it no longer, Humphry brought her the substance which she used to end her life. All such groups assist terminally ill persons in ending their lives.
      Before presenting information on how to end one’s life, most such groups suggest other alternatives. Compassion and Choices, for example, offers professional counselors and trained volunteers who work by phone or in person to offer assistance in completing advance directives, living wills, referrals to local services, including hospice and illness-specific support groups; and advice on adequate pain and symptom management;
      But FEN has lowered the bar on requirements; instead of being terminally ill, the applicant has only to "have an incurable condition which causes intolerable suffering." It is possible for such a person to have, say, a mental illness, but otherwise be healthy enough to live many more years.
      FEN is a volunteer organization. If the applicant is accepted, and 80% of them are, FEN assigns “exit guides” which offer advice on how to "hasten death," but not physical help to do so. (FEN recommends filling a plastic bag, or hood, with helium and pulling it over one's head—a method that works quickly and leaves no trace in the body.) By not physically participating in the act, the group argues, it remains in compliance with the law, which in the vast majority of states prohibits assisting with a suicide. But the statutes are hazy on what exactly constitutes assistance.
      As a result, FEN accepts people that other groups turn away; people with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer’s disease, congestive heart failure, emphysema, cancer, and other incurable illnesses including depression and suicidal symptoms. However, that does not mean they accept simply troubled individuals with no serious health threats.
      I believe that people should be allowed to die with dignity, and on their own terms – as far as I am concerned, one’s body is one’s exclusive property. However, there should be some protocol for the decision making process. The following is a minimum:

1.) Because of the irrevocable nature of the decision, it is important that the patient be of sound mind.

2.) Other procedures, e.g., counseling, pain management, prayer, etc. should be tried first.

3.) Someone may explain how the procedure should best be accomplished, but no pressure should be allowed.

4.) It is OK to recommend a method and to help gather the equipment, but the patient should perform the actual procedure without physical help.
      As for the “playing God” card, which was popular among conservatives during the Terri Schiavo case in 2005, if we believe in free will, we do that every time we make a decision. And if we believe in determinism, playing God is impossible – every decision is His.
      As far as I know, most laws prohibit assisting a suicide, and until they require preventing a suicide if one knows it is about to occur, these steps should keep the “exit guide” clear of any charges. THIS IS AN OPINION, I AM NOT AN ATTORNEY.
      What do you think?

To read excerpts from “The Spirit Runs Through It,” click here.

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