The Soul of Oregon's Death With Dignity Act

By Chris Edwards of Creswell, Oregon. Chris Edwards is the general manager of a forest products company and writes the blog Oregon Sunrise.

Opponents of the Death With Dignity Act never call it by its formal name. To them, the reality of dignity afforded to people suffering long, undignified, wasting, and painful deaths is too positive a term to fight against. So they change the issue into "Assisted Suicide". The word "suicide" conjures up myriad images, none of them good. And the idea of someone else helping another pull the trigger seems absolutely hideously and dark.

Unfortunately this term ignores the reality that those exercising their rights under Oregon's Death With Dignity Act are on already on heaven's door step. They are very near their deaths, and for a variety of personal reasons within their own souls, which our minds cannot pretend to experience or know, they choose to hasten their imminent death with the use of legal prescription drugs (none of which are paid for by the Federal government as stipulated in 1997 legislation preventing such).

Former US Attorney General John Ashcroft filed the appeal challenging the Act with the US Supreme Court last November, arguing that physician assisted suicide is "not a legitimate medical purpose". Should our government legislate a value? Of course it should. We do it all the time. We write laws making it illegal to commit crimes against others. We promote and protect the value of not harming others. But choosing to move on from this life, when the end is clear and imminent, is the most personal of all decisions a person can make. That decision rests within one's own soul and no one else's.

The judgment of which medical practices are "legitimate" is values based. Some are easy for all of us to agree on, such as prescribing antibiotics to cure bronchitis in a 5-year-old child. How about breast reduction surgery to relieve a woman's headaches and neck pain? How about breast implants to help a woman feel better about herself. To assist with her self-esteem? How about breast implants to help a woman debauch herself as a porn-star?

By what standard do we define legitimate?

The irony is that in an effort to "do no harm", opponents to Death With Dignity are pretending to understand how God works. This after so reverently doing their best to surrender to God's will. What right have they to question God? It seems that the impetuous for many to do God's work is to know that surely they were not in opposition to God on any specific issue. As Americans we seem to feel particularly uncomfortable with our loneliness in the world and we seek the solace of prescriptive religious rules to affirm our "okayness".

To help another to "see the light" or shape policy in a way consistent with one's own interpretation of God is affirming to our sense of self as people. Can I blame them? No, not really. They are simply people doing their best to cope with the condition of being human.

So Americans meddle in the affairs of other's hearts and souls. We feel compelled to save others from themselves because the only way a person knows how to experience the world is created by one's self. We cannot feel what another feels. We cannot live another's life. So we try to use the models created from our own experiences to help others. And ultimately, the meddling is not welcomed.

It is somewhat telling that our faith-based laws or efforts, are often the ones concerning the least comfortable subjects. When does life begin? What happens after our life here? How should we die? What is normal behavior? And while issues such as Abortion, Death With Dignity, and Gay Rights are still matters of heated debate, other formerly religious institutions such as marriage are regularly dissolved. "...let no man put asunder". It doesn't get much more specific and prescriptive than that.

Yet as people we can picture life after divorce. We all know divorcees. As our comfort level with the idea of divorce increases then so does our acceptance of it. But death is different. No one has known anyone after they leave this human life experience. The unknown is scary. It is uncomfortable. So we do what we can to cope...we legislate.

Ultimately, I believe opponents to Death With Dignity are motivated from their desire to do good. To be righteous. To help others. In this doing, they gain a feeling of security with themselves; believing they are doing"God's work", and they will be rewarded for their efforts. They may even save souls. And I respect this enormously.

But with all do respect, we the people of Oregon ask that the God fearing folks across America please let us be and let our own people meet with God on their terms, not yours.

  • Gary Marschke (unverified)

    Back in 1997 my business partner and I produced a documentary called "Death on mt Terms...Right or Privilege?" which subsequently aired on several dozen PBS affiliates. It was a balanced look at not just both sides of the issue but the human element that was so clearely absent from the debate at the time.

    First let me clarify that the issue was framed from the beginning by the Faith-based community, specifically the Catholic Church and the Right To Lifers, who had much more experience and a much more sophisticated pr machine that those with death With Dignity.

    In developing the documentary we found that while the humanistic elements involved in how one dies were the most emotionally compelling (ie: control, dignity, quality of life), the issue that would ultimately decide the future and fate of the movement was the quality of end of life care being provided by the medical community.

    As recently as 2000, the over-all quality of end-of-life care was appalling (with a notable exception being Hospice). Most physicians saw their responsibilities fulfilled once a terminal diagnosis was made since they no longer were able to "save lives". Pain and symptom management, along with other comfort issues, were left to the patient to direct. Pain medications, for example, were routinely underprescribed and then in dosages that were increasingly inadequate out of fear of "addiction" or worse yet "side effects and/or additional health risks". For a terminal patient?

    One apparently overlooked side effect of the assault on Measure 16 is that any progress made toward aggressively treating pain and symptoms of those terminally ill will regress significantly as more physicians back away out of fear of being accused of prescribing potentially fatal dosages or at least "hastening" if not directly facilitating death.

    While I agree with all of Chris' points, I believe that the only real chance we have of preserving Death With Dignity pivots on states rights rather than patients or individual rights. We in Oregon have twice decided that this is something we want, the Constitution says we have the right to make that decision, and both state and federal courts have already agreed. That should be enough already.

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