WASHINGTON — Former Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R-N. Y.), seated in a wheelchair and with a battery-powered breathing tube in his throat, appealed Tuesday for federal laws to give the dying the right to end their medical treatment. "The contemplation of death . . . should be a thing of beauty," he said.
Javits, who is dying from a degenerative muscle disease, said that Congress should approve legislation recognizing "living wills," under which a person can decide in advance--while still healthy--to forgo prolonged treatment with life-sustaining equipment.
Recalling that Gov. Richard D. Lamm of Colorado last year "suggested that people with no real prospect of living ought to get out of the way and stop using medical resources to be kept alive," Javits told the House Aging Committee: "It sounded callous, and probably was, but the governor was uttering a truth.
"We have not yet reached the point in this great nation of ours where living or dying has nothing to do with money. That is what makes the right to die with dignity an issue of morality and humanity as well as of policy and law."
Committee members listened raptly as Javits delivered his message that the "right to die" should be "accompanied by that dignity which equals the joy of birth."
The 81-year-old attorney, who served in both the Senate and House, smiled and exchanged compliments with the legislators, read his statement and answered questions in a somewhat gravelly voice, speaking clearly but slowly.
Javits' mental acuity is undiminished from the days when he was the senior senator from New York. But his physical powers have been eroding steadily since 1979, when he was diagnosed as having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig's disease after its most famous victim, the New York Yankees' baseball star of the 1920s and 1930s.
Javits, whose lungs no longer work, now breathes through a portable ventilator with a plastic tube that runs into his trachea. At Tuesday's hearing, an aide placed a pair of eyeglasses on Javits, removed them after the testimony and later mopped Javits' brow, shiny under the heat of a bank of television cameras.
Modern technology can keep life going "when the brain is gone," said Javits, appealing for a national policy to replace the diversity of local rules.
35 States Allow Living Wills
Each state has its own laws regulating the ability of individuals and family members to decide the conditions for halting medical treatment. In 35 states, including California, the laws recognize living wills, which allow a person of sound mind to decide on medical treatment to sustain life just as he would decide about leaving property in an ordinary will.
But in the absence of a living will, only 12 states give family members the unquestioned right to make a decision about halting medical treatment, Javits said. The result is "confusion and confrontation in families," and a heavy burden of decision on doctors and hospitals, he noted.
Rep. Jan Meyers (R-Kan.), recalling that she had been called a "murderer" when she tried unsuccessfully to change Kansas laws dealing with the dying, told Javits that any effort to write a federal law would be "fraught with controversy and real anguish."
'Anguish Goes With Job'
Javits responded: "Anguish goes with the job. That's what we're doing here today." He added: "As long as I can, I'll continue" to strive for new laws.
Edward Viner, a doctor who spent five weeks on a respirator after surgery when he feared he was dying of liver cancer, told the committee that he practices medicine in a different way after the "terror" of expecting imminent death.
"I hope and trust that I now find it easier to listen to patients," said Viner, a Philadelphia physician who works with cancer patients.
"I no longer use machines and other intensive supportive procedures, simply because they exist. I can recognize that the patient should be the beneficiary of what we are doing and not the victim. I am able to deal better with the realities of life, which dictate that some patients should be allowed to die quietly, with dignity, without stress and without machines," Viner said.
Another witness, Mae Chertkoff of Tempe, Ariz., who watched her brother die slowly of lung cancer, said that the emotional impact was "heartbreaking to all members of the family."
"When I asked the doctor to stop the agonizing torture of prolonging the agony with no hope of life, the answer I got was, 'I'm not God,' " she recalled. But, she said: "The medical bills that came in the last 45 days of prolonged life even God would forbid."