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VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES | Essay

Assisted Suicide: a Choice for Society

May 01, 1999|NANCY BECKER KENNEDY | Nancy Becker Kennedy is a contributing editor to New Mobility magazine

I was injured in a diving accident in college 27 years ago, have quadriplegia as a result, and use a wheelchair. I have had an arguably busier life than several people combined and am very concerned about the so-called Death With Dignity Act, the measure by Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley) that would allow competent adults suffering a terminal illness to seek a medication from a doctor to end their lives.

I was in favor of the right to choose suicide, about 17 years ago. I was a news and public affairs producer at public television station KCET in Los Angeles and we had just aired a controversial documentary about an artist with a terminal illness who chose to end her life with elan (champagne and barbiturates), in a celebratory house party where she said good-bye to all her assembled friends and family.

But that was 17 years ago, before the escalating cost of health care created the "lifeboat mentality" that caused things like HMO's gagging their doctors from telling patients about procedures the HMO believes cost too much.

Absent a national health care system, I believe that the huge impact of the cost of health care will create an atmosphere in which people with medical needs will be "guilted" into dying early because they cost too much.

Additionally, there is the threat that people might assist in the suicide of a loved one who just acquired a disabling condition and is temporarily despairing to die.

Aroner's bill does not address the subtle effect it could have on medical choices. The more one is perceived as "almost terminal," the more concern there is about spending money.

As manufacturing has moved to other countries for cheaper labor, health care has risen as a major growth industry. But should we really be trimming life to make money or cut budgets?

The way one spends his or her last days of consciousness is considered of utmost spiritual value for many spiritual paths. In some Judeo-Christian faiths, suicide is seen as a terrible lost gift of time and consciousness.

I believe that choice belongs to the individual and I have sympathy for those in pain. But can a government make that choice? In this health care economy, I believe it cannot.

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