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November 26, 2008
Column #1,422
Death with Dignity - Or Coercion?
By Mike McManus

Ever since Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide in 1997, "Death with Dignity" groups have been trying to peddle their macabre plot to other states.  In Michigan, voters quashed the notion by 71 to 29 percent in 1998.  Maine voters rejected it in 2000 and 90 different attempts to persuade State Legislatures to pass physician-assisted suicide failed.

Consequently, the Compassion in Dying Federation decided to rename their group a more palatable Compassion & Choices, and repackaged their campaign.  The word "suicide" is no longer used.  They called it "hastened death," or "aid-in-dying" since polls show the public's more likely to accept the controversial practice when the S-word is avoided.

Compassion & Choice then targeted neighboring Washington State because folks out there are more likely to revere nature than God.  Only 33% of Washingtonians are members of a church, slightly above Oregon's 31 percent - half that of New York, New Mexico or Arkansas.

Secondly, they raised a huge war-chest of $5.5 million. Perhaps the largest contributor  was former Washington Gov. Booth Gardner who poured in $470,000 of his own fortune.  "People have the right to have control over the final days of life," he said to support Initiative 1000. 

By contrast, the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide raised only $1.5 million, despite generous giving particularly by Catholics. Its spokesman, Chris Carlson, lamented, "Unfortunately, money can be a real difference in how broadly you can spread the message."

He warned that the measure could be "a first step toward, not only physician-assisted suicide" in which physicians prescribe deadly "medicine" that patients self-administer, but also ultimately, lead to euthanasia in which doctors murder patients directly.

That's exactly what happened in Belgium and the Netherlands, where physician-assisted suicide soon morphed into direct patient killing, of not only those requesting it, but those considered expendable -- babies with defects or the elderly ill who are expensive to care for.

To counter the "expansion argument," I-1000 proponents focused upon the statistical record from neighboring Oregon. Contrary to some predictions, thousands of Oregonians did not seek a "humane and dignified death."  In the 10 years since the law took effect, 515 people got a lethal prescription, and of those, 341 ingested the killer pills.

Gardner argued that Oregon's experience "helps a lot."  Opponents "say there aren't safeguards and that's not the truth.  The fact is (in a decade) "there are no complaints. An issue this hot is going to have people watching it like a hawk."

Not quite.  Oregon's reporting system has an utter lack of transparency and accountability. There are enough loopholes in the law "to drive a hearse through," asserts Rita Marker, an attorney and executive director of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.  The crime of assisted suicide was transformed into a medical treatment.

That's why it is opposed by the state's nurses, disability groups and 9,000 physicians.

One of the loopholes is that there are no penalties for physicians who do not report prescribing fatal doses.  Perhaps 5,150 did so, not the 515 officially reported. Secondly, the reports doctors file are destroyed each year after they are counted. So there is no way to independently investigate the program..

Rita Marker says "The only thing we really know about Oregon is that there have been 341 REPORTED deaths and no REPORTED abuses. The International Task Force has found abuse and been screaming about it every since the law took effect."

The law is supposed to apply only to residents who are 18 or older, mentally competent and have a diagnosed life expectancy of less than six months.  Patients must request their prescription, fill out a form, wait 15 days and make a second oral request.

However, consider the case of Barbara Wagner, a 64-year-old whose doctor told her that her cancer, which had been in remission, had returned. He prescribed a new drug to slow its growth and extend her life.  Since the drug is expensive, the Oregon Health Plan, the state's Medicaid program - told her via an unsigned form letter that it would not cover the cost.

However, the letter said the plan would pay for  "physician aid in dying."

"They would pay to kill me, but they will not give me the medication to slow the growth of my cancer," she said tearfully in a video for the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide.

That's coercion for financial reasons, not death with dignity.

With its 4-1 funding advantage, Washington voters were persuaded by a huge 58  to 42 percent margin  to legalize physician-assisted suicide, the second state with such a law.

Expect more coercion by the state and relatives in the will of the frail elderly.

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