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SUPREME COURT RULINGS

Terminally Ill Are Determined to Make Their Own Judgments

Reaction: Many say they will take last act of their lives with or without legal sanction. Some hope court's decision will force legislatures to take action.

June 27, 1997|KIM MURPHY and MARIA La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Dale Gilsdorf sometimes imagines the moment of his death, and it makes him feel powerful. It's an odd thing, really: how knowing he is going to die gives him the ability to choose how it will happen.

Diagnosed a year ago with lung cancer and in March with a brain tumor, the 58-year-old Olympia, Wash., psychotherapist has spent months repairing old relationships, saying things he never got a chance to say before, explaining to his daughters that--if it seems necessary someday--he will take control of his body away from the cancer and swallow a cocktail of drugs powerful enough to kill him.

Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that there is no broad constitutional right to do what he proposes to do, Gilsdorf will likely have to do it without a doctor's open help: no physician at his side to administer the medication, no one to treat its possible side effects, no one, indeed, to help him know at that last moment that hope is gone and death is at the door.

Yet Gilsdorf, surrounded by friends ready to help, feels fully ready to commit the last act of his life--with or without legal sanction. Ironically, he said, the high court's refusal to recognize his right to do so could have the benefit of spurring state legislatures across the country to act.

"It's another step that's taken place, which will enhance the probabilities, three or four or five years from now, of legislation allowing physicians to assist patients," Gilsdorf said. "On an individual basis, I don't have any fear. I just don't. I can find the means to enhance my death."

*

As legal scholars across the country debated the foundations of the high court's ruling, some of those most intimately awaiting it--patients with terminal diseases and their families--were stung by the setback but determined to press ahead with state legislation permitting doctors to help terminal and desperate patients to die.

"I'm very much glad to see it come back to the states, and hopefully with all that has gone on, death is completely now out of the closet," said Jinny Tesik, a Seattle grief counselor whose father ended his own life without a doctor's help. "It's not a setback even. We have gotten national attention on this. It's a beginning step, and it's not over."

For the men and women who may someday want to decide when to end their own lives, the reactions to the court's decision were as personal as their own life-and-death choices.

For John Baer, it's an issue of religious freedom. For Jeff Fenston, it's all about property rights. For both men--grappling with terminal illness--the Supreme Court made a big mistake.

"I think my body is my property," says Fenston, 44, of San Francisco, living with AIDS and comforted by a safe-deposit box full of life-ending drugs. The decision is "infringing on my rights as a human being. It's invading my doctor-patient confidentiality. It's none of the Supreme Court's goddamn business what goes on between me and my doctor."

Or between people and their conception of God, says Baer, 53, a retired commercial pilot who considered assisted suicide six years ago when battling lymphoma.

"This should come under freedom of religion," said the Arroyo Grande, Calif., man. "If I think that there is a life after death, then I should have no fear of going on. . . . It's all a matter of religion and how you put man in perspective to life."

Several years ago, Fenston consulted his two physicians about helping him end his life if life with AIDS became too unbearable. The two compared notes and eventually decided that he was sane and worth supporting in his decision.

"I can have as much insomnia as I want, and he can write as many prescriptions for it as he wants, and there's nothing illegal about it," Fenston said.

*

He takes the so-called triple therapy of protease inhibitors, which makes him vomit daily. If it weren't for that safe-deposit box filled with pills, he wouldn't be taking the leap of faith that triple therapy takes. So basically, the ability to die when he wants to has actually prolonged his life. And he wishes that the court would understand that nuance.

"I could never start triple therapy if I didn't have the choice of self-deliverance," Fenston said. "It's like jumping off a cliff and hoping there's a lake at the bottom."

Baer, whose lymphoma has been in remission for nearly six years, came "very close to making that decision" for physician-assisted suicide.

Chemotherapy failed him. He faced a bone marrow transplant as he watched a friend die a horrible death from Lou Gehrig's disease.

Baer made out a living will. He made his wife promise that "when I wanted to go, they would allow me to go," he recounted. "She agreed."

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