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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

The Right to Choose Death

June 25, 2005|Kenneth Swift | Kenneth Swift lives in Tustin.

We were finally able to bring our little girl home, a joyful event that seemed unlikely just a short time before. She had developed an infection that turned out to be quite virulent, threatening her internal organs and, potentially, her life. After weeks of hospitalization, including a few days when her prognosis was particularly grim, she showed the same resolve and fortitude that had often been on display throughout her 14 years of life. With the help of a wonderful staff of doctors and a state-of-the-art facility, she beat the odds, overcame her affliction, and our family is whole once again.

I can't say that I am afraid of death, but I do find the prospect of dying quite frightening, especially for loved ones like my Megan. Actually, when living turns into dying, when the quality of life becomes instead a daily struggle with pain and hopelessness, death can be a relief.

There were a few days when we wondered if Megan had crossed that invisible line between living and dying and whether we would be strong enough to help her find that relief. During her hospital stay, we saw others who had confronted the same issue, their decision easily discerned by the puffy eyes, glistening cheeks and empty collar in their hands, leash still attached.

Yes, Megan is a dog, though for my wife and I, that is a fact relevant only for health insurance purposes (she is not covered). Although she does not qualify as our legal dependent, she more than qualifies as a full-fledged, loved and loving member of our family. Yet, being "just a dog" and therefore no more than property under the law, she is afforded a right denied to most of her fellow mammalians of the bipedal variety: the right to die with dignity, spared of pain and suffering if that should be her fate.

Only residents of Oregon are able to exercise a similar right. However, a bill in the Assembly, AB 654, would provide the same right to Californians that Oregonians have had since 1998.

This is not the first time that assisted suicide has been considered by the California Legislature. Bills were introduced in 1995 and 1999 but never presented for a floor vote. In addition, Proposition 161 was on the ballot in 1992 but rejected by 54% of the voters. According to information on the Assembly's website, AB 654 is intended to expand the range of care for dying patients to "include choices for those relatively few whose suffering is extreme and cannot be palliated despite the best efforts." Makes sense to me.

Life is a precious gift. Yet when a life turns tragic through disease or injury and the joy of living yields to the pain of interminable suffering, surely an enlightened society such as ours can accept that from death there can be peace.

Critics make the usual "slippery slope" argument that the right to die is just the first step toward an eventual policy of euthanasia. In fact, the Assembly website notes the fear of the critics that "the right to die may become a responsibility to die" for those considered "socially disadvantaged," such as the elderly and the disabled.

In response to those fears, AB 654 is narrowly written to apply only to the terminally ill and only after ascertaining the competence of the patient. Also, it requires two doctors to attest to the condition of the patient and the fact that the patient is acting voluntarily.

The bill is modeled on the law in Oregon, where, in the seven years since the measure was passed, just over 200 residents have exercised their right to end their suffering and none of the concerns of the critics have been realized.

The more religious of the critics would argue that assisted suicide attempts to usurp an authority that can only be the province of God. Yet even the religious support the taking of life for capital crimes and even the use of war when the cause is considered "just." So what could be more just than allowing a person to choose to end a life that is bereft of hope and consumed with pain? It is time for compassion to replace unfounded fears.

If life is for the living, then surely death should be an option for the dying. Megan shouldn't be the only one with that right.

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