USA TODAY US Edition
‘Death with dignity’ laws offer compassionate option
Retired real estate agent Charles Selsberg, 77, was not what anyone would call an activist. But ravaged by Lou Gehrig ’s disease in his dying days, Selsberg made a public plea to the Colorado legislature to legalize physician-assisted suicide.
“Living with this disease is a cruelty we wouldn’t tolerate for a pet,” Selsberg wrote with his daughter’s help in a commentary for The Denver Post last year. He couldn’t eat, breathe on his own or speak above a labored whisper, but without a legal way to end his life, he was forced to live on as “really just a mind now, trapped in a dead body.”
Selsberg ’s plea wasn’t answered in Colorado, where a right-to-die measure failed in committee this spring, about a year after his death. But elsewhere, lawmakers are listening. California enacted a measure this month, joining Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington in allowing physicians to prescribe self-administered, life-ending medication for certain terminally ill patients.
A similar measure has passed the New Jersey Assembly and is awaiting action in the state Senate. Supporters are promoting “death with dignity” legislation in several other states.
Out of decency and respect for the wishes of people suffering excruciating declines, doctors should be legally allowed to assist terminally ill patients end their lives, with strict safeguards against abuse. A Gallup Poll last May found that nearly 70% of Americans agree.
Several individuals have demonstrated in the most public way imaginable that they want this choice. Retired Los Angeles police detective Christy O’Donnell, 47, who has lung cancer and only a few months to live, campaigned for the new California law. Because opponents are threatening to seek a 2016 ballot measure to overturn the law, which won't take effect until at least April, O'Donnell might not live to take advantage of the law she worked so hard to pass.
Fears that such laws would lead to abuse and coercion have proved unfounded. Oregon, the first state to allow physician-assisted suicide, has paved the way with more than 15 years of experience and a properly structured law. The option is open only to people 18 or older who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months. They must make two oral requests to their physician, at least 15 days apart, plus a written request. Two doctors must confirm the diagnosis and determine that patients are capable of making their own health decisions. The law doesn’t allow for impulsive decisions.
In Oregon, the number of suicides has been small — a total of 859 in 17 years. Last year, there were 105 physician-assisted suicides out of a total of 34,160 deaths in the state.
In the 1990s, the zealotry of Jack Kevorkian, known as “Dr. Death,” set back the cause of physician-assisted suicide. Today, the California law has 65% approval. Gov. Jerry Brown got it right when he wrote he doesn’t know what he would do if he were “dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” but that it would be a comfort “to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”