Saturday, April 12, 2008

If I Should Die Before I Wake, Part II

In 1994, the state of Oregon, the only state to do so, voted in favor of the Death With Dignity Act, and three years later they voted against repeal. The Oregon law allows terminally ill patients of sound mind who are likely to die within six months to receive lethal doses of pills after conferring with two doctors. A prescription for lethal drugs is then written by the doctor, and the patients administer the drugs themselves. Despite fears that ill people would flock to Oregon for assisted suicide, in the law's first seven years, only 208 people followed through to the end. When John Ashcroft became attorney general in 2001, he issued an edict that doctors who prescribe drugs that are used to commit suicide can be prosecuted under the federal Controlled Substances Act. The state of Oregon and a group of terminally ill patients challenged this Ashcroft directive and won. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States in Gonzales v. Oregon in 2005.

The terrible deaths made possible by modern medical advances necessitate a change in thinking about the ethics of assisted suicide. Over 15 years ago, as I watched my mother’s health and body deteriorate and the likelihood of a very painful death process looming, I turned to the Hemlock Society and purchased the book, “Final Exit” by Derek Humphry. The book was a waste of time, giving no usable advice, and my conversations with her doctor and with my own doctor led nowhere. I concluded that in Rhode Island I could not even discuss the subject of giving her a way out if she were in excruciating pain and dying.

Nowadays, doctors assure me that they have the means to provide a pain-free existence to a person whose body is wasting away from cancer or from some other wasting disease. I think this is generally true, but I think also that there are many situations where either the doctors would be unwilling to provide the drugs in the amounts needed, fearing malpractice lawsuits from the family, where the person’s existence is so degrading that just stopping the pain is not enough, or where the drugs just don’t work. The flip side to the wonders of modern medicine is the prospect of a horrible, lingering death, and we do not even have the blessing of “the old man’s friend” anymore. A few years ago, I got a vaccination that protects me from pneumonia for the rest of my life.

If you don’t live in Oregon (and possibly even if you do), no help is available to those in such horrible situations. That is why the following report caught my eye; it may not be pleasant to read nor to contemplate, but someday it may provide an answer for some:

Death for hire - suicide machine lets you push final button
March 29, 2008, TimesonLine (Excerpt)

“One press of a button and you can end your life with a swift injection of potassium chloride. That is the boast of Roger Kusch, once one of Germany's most promising conservative politicians and now the improbable promoter of a mercy-killing machine.

If the “Perfusor”, designed to sidestep strict laws banning assisted suicide, goes into production then Germany rather than Switzerland could soon become the destination of choice for those seeking to kill themselves.

Some 700 patients, including several terminally ill Britons, have travelled to Zurich where the self-help organisation Dignitas arranges suicide. Assisted suicide has been legal in Switzerland since 1942 providing a doctor has been consulted and the patient is aware of the consequences of his decision.

But Dignitas has come under fire for experimenting with suicide techniques. According to video evidence presented to the Zurich state prosecutor, patients have been placing plastic bags over their heads and feeding in helium gas.

In four cases being studied by the prosecutor, one patient died after nine minutes and three after between 25 and 50 minutes. “The bodies twitched for several minutes,” Andreas Brunner, the prosecutor, said. Swiss papers compared the gassing method to the techniques used in the Third Reich.

Dignitas argued that gassing was faster than poisonous injection because helium did not require a prescription, eliminating the cost and the time involved in finding a sympathetic doctor.

These revelations have struck home in Germany, where direct assistance in mercy killing is illegal and where most Dignitas clients live. The theme is highly sensitive because of the systematic euthanasia practised by the Nazis on the physically and mentally disabled.

“The machine is simply an option for fatally ill people,” said Dr Kusch, 53, presenting the green machine that looks like a cross between an electric transformer and a paint spraygun. “Nobody is forced to use it but I do believe that it will contribute to a debate that is moving thousands of people.”

The machine would be lent or rented so that the patients could insert the needles themselves and then push the button releasing the potassium chloride, used to execute Death Row prisoners in some US states. Supporters say the machine will bring about death in seconds. Death Row cases suggest the process could be longer. One of the responsibilities of the organisation lending the machine will be to consult with doctors about the exact dosage.

Merely lending the machine to a prospective suicide is not, say legal experts, against German law. Gerhard Strate, a defence lawyer from Hamburg, said: “As long as the sick person is fully conscious and aware, then lending the machine to him is no more illegal than lending him a kitchen knife or a razor blade. It becomes illegal only if the potential suicide asks someone in the room to press the button for him.””

Hillary Clinton was asked what she thought of Oregon’s support of legalized assisted suicide.
She reportedly answered, “’I believe it's within the province of the states to make that decision.”

This may be the only position of Hillary’s with which I agree

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At 1:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a person who went through losing a terminally ill spouse, I would recommend Hospice. They are the most compassionate people I have ever known. I am not against suicide, as I feel anyone has the right to do whatever he/she wants to do to their body (as opposed to those who believe in abortion which is the killing of another's live)

At 6:38 PM, Blogger RussWilcox said...

I agree; in fact abortion, suicide and capital punishment have no relationship whatsoever, regardless of efforts by liberals to tie them together.

At 6:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The main opposition to "Death with Dignity" here in Oregon came from religious conservatives, not from liberals.


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