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May 11, 2005

A better way than a gun?

Had he lived in Oregon, the terminally ill man who shot himself in the head at Oak Glen Home in Coal Valley last month wouldn't have needed the gun.

There would have been no need for someone to put himself or herself at risk of criminal charges by slipping him the weapon.

There would have been no possibility that other residents would be harmed by the bullet after it exited his head.

There would have been no trauma for the nursing home staff.

Instead, he could simply have asked that he be prescribed a fatal dose of some medication -- pentobarbital and secobarbital are the drugs of choice in Oregon, the only state that permits physician-assisted suicide.

Had he lived in Oregon, he would have met the criteria set in the state's Death with Dignity Act: He was more than 18 years old, capable of making and communicating health-care decisions, and diagnosed with a terminal illness that would have led to death within six months.

He could have slipped away peacefully, loved ones at his side, rather than desperately, furtively and violently firing a bullet into his own head.

But society's refusal to recognize that dying is sometimes a rational decision robbed him of that option. It also robs a great many other people of a better choice than a gun. Of the 30,000-plus people who kill themselves each year in the United States, more than 6,000 are older than 65 and a good many of those suffer from a terminal illness.

Why not give a choice to those who prefer to save themselves and their families the pain and heartache of those last six months?

No good reason, Oregon voters have decided -- twice. The Death with Dignity Act was first passed in a referendum by a 51-49 percent vote. An effort to rescind the law was mounted and another referendum was held. The second time around, the percentage in favor of the act was 60-40. Between 1998, when the law went into effect, and the end of 2004, 208 people availed themselves of the assisted suicide option.

The law is of course deeply controversial. When it went into effect, John Ashcroft, than a United States senator from Missouri, urged Attorney General Janet Reno to intervene. She declined, saying there were no grounds for federal interference.

Mr. Ashcroft, named attorney general by newly elected President George Bush in 2001, reversed Ms. Reno, claiming that doctors who provide fatal doses of drugs are in violation of federal drug control laws.

Oregon went to court to defend its statute, and won at the federal appellate court level. The federal government appealed the decision and the Supreme Court has agreed to accept the case.

As too often happens in matters of great moral impact, the issue is being fought out on narrow technical grounds, in this case whether the attorney general has correctly interpreted the federal Controlled Substances Act..

Oral arguments are scheduled for this fall, with a ruling expected to come early next year.

Here's hoping that the Oregon law survives the challenge. Here's hoping, too, that other states visit, or re-visit, the question of assisted suicide. We should give terminally ill people who rationally decide there are worse things than dying some better option than a gun.

John Beydler is news editor at Quad-Cities Online. Email johnbeyd@qconline.com

Posted by jcb at May 11, 2005 01:31 PM


I was saddened to read of the elderly man's suicide. I do believe that human beings should have control over their own demise when they are terminally ill. It is devastating to know that someone we love will suffer until they pass. It is extremely difficult and heartwrenching to watch people wither away.

I totally agree in the Oregon law. We do not allow animals to suffer for any length of time. There is no question about whether to let them suffer until they die. When a cat or dog is diagnosed with a terminal disease we have a choice to keep that animal alive or not. If a horse breaks his leg he is "put to sleep". We should advocate for this law in Illinois and Iowa. Human beings should have a choice as well.

Posted by: Lynne at May 12, 2005 12:59 AM

Bless that elderly mans family! What a shame it is that our people ( and all that love them ) are made to suffer through terminal illnesses. Wake up people; it's the QUALITY of life-not the quantity! I have never had a terminal patient tell me that they would like to be kept alive just one more day. Terminal patients do not suffer through thier illnesses for themselves-they do it for thier families. Let us all follow Oregons lead and allow our people a CHOICE!!!

Posted by: D at May 12, 2005 09:16 AM

There is inconsistency in oppoising the death penalty (your reasoning: the convicted criminal might be innocent; plus one study says it may cost more to execute a killer than keep him in prison for life), while supporting the notion that it ought to be OK for a doctor to kill someone who is terminally ill, assuming the sick person asks to be terminated.

Today, Connecticut executed Michael Bruce Ross, a convicted serial killer. Though 300 people protested - quite predictably - the execution, here's what the mother of one of the victims, who was 14 when Ross strangled her, had to say: ''My daughter and the other victims finally have the justice they deserve and now they can all rest in peace.''

Justice indeed. Some crimes are so heinous that death is the only reasonable punishment. The fact that it may cost the government (us) more to get the job done shouldn't sway us any more than the fact that it may cost more to keep some alive who needs an expensive medical procedure.

None of us can imagine what it is like to have an agonizing terminal illness. Taking a fatal dose of morphine or whatever drug is handy is something a lot of people would consider in such a situation. And yet most of us know people who have gone through something like this and have chosen not to take their own life. I discussed this last night with a friend whose parents both died prolonged and painful deaths, his father from lung cancer, his mother from ovarian cancer. It was only at the end that either of them gave up hope they might recover, though the odds were unthinkably long.

''The will to live is more powerful than anything else,'' he said. ''My mom said she'd never forgive herself if she gave up and they found a cure a week after she died. She tried one experimental drug, and when that didn't work she wanted to try another.''

I have an elderly relative - she's in her mid 80s - with a degenerative spine condition. She's incapacitated and in constant pain. On a pain scale of 1 to 10, she rates hers as constantly 10-plus. From what I can see, she has absolutely zero quality of life. I don't understand how she can go on. If I were in her position, I think I would simply want to die. But it's not me, and if it were, my attitude might be more like hers: Miserable as she is, she wants to live and constantly pursues different surgeries and treatments to allow her to keep going even though for a long time it's been hopeless (or so it seems to me).

I have another relative in a nursing home. When he had to decide whether to sign a do-not-resuscitate order, he completely surprised me by dismissing it out of hand. From my perspective, here was one of those rugged individualists, a John Wayne type, now reduced to living in a nursing home who would not want to prolong the various indignities should he stop breathing. But no. He wants to live, even in circumstances he would have found intolerable a few years earlier. Besides, he fully believes he is going to improve and be able to go home someday.

Where there is life there is hope, even when the cause appears to be hopeless.

Maybe more people with terminal illnesses take their lives than we know, but I doubt it. The evidence I've seen is that people want to live, even if it's only for a few more weeks, even if it means suffering horrific pain. Maybe the statistically small number of people in Oregon who pursued assisted suicide wanted to end life not because of their illness, but because they were depressed - and understandably so - to the degree that they really weren't competent to make life-and-death decisions. I don't know any physically sick people who have killed themselves (that I know of); the few suicides in my experience were classically, and tragically, mentally ill.

Life is messy and filled with suffering. Birth is painful and risky. The other end of the game isn't any easier. We'll each get to see how it plays out. I could be wrong, but I doubt many of us will be in a hurry to die and get it over with, even for those of us who know the end is near and miserable. It's not uncommon to say, or hear somebody say, that somebody would be better off if their suffering ended, but I have yet to visit somebody in the hospital or nursing home and have them tell me it would be nice if the doctor could drop by to kill them.

A law that allows doctor help a dying person end his suffering may appear to be a kindness, but it will contribute to the devaluing of human life. There also will be, over time, abuse in the application. We shoot horses with broken legs, but people aren't horses and shouldn't be put down just because it's expensive and emotionally draining to take care of them -- which is what will happen. Or, as has been reported in the Netherlands, doctors and nurses will start deciding on their own when it's time for you to die.

We balk at executing a child killer but we want to make it legal for doctors to kill somebody who has cancer - it doesn't make sense to me.

Posted by: romkey at May 13, 2005 10:34 AM