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Friday, March 12, 1999

Hawaii can’t keep
ignoring topic
of assisted death

By Ruth Ellen Lindenberg

Tapa

IT takes a suicide to shake one up. We just had a double suicide in our condo. An elderly couple with serious and irreversible health problems took their lives recently. Admirable people whom I had known and respected for years, they lived on the next floor of my building.

The man had been a respected physician, an orthopedist who in his day had put back together countless broken bodies. His civic-minded wife toiled in our election precinct to see that the best candidates were supported. She saw as her duty the need to work for community change.

Advancing years and deteriorating health had reduced their lives to the lowest level of endurance. In the mail room where I encountered this venerable gentleman, I marveled that he could make it down the elevator to pick up his letters.

My reaction to their double suicide was ambivalent. I was glad that their suffering was over and that they were now at peace. But my mind raced on.

They had written their daughter to indicate that, by the time she received the letter, they would be gone. They died alone in their condo.

Why do people who have lived exemplary lives have to take their own lives all alone when their quality of life has sunk to an impossible level of endurance?

As I thought about this further, another question haunted me. Why aren't there better ways?

The Hawaii Legislature has just killed a bill that could have opened the door to help persons facing unmitigated suffering and to give them the opportunity to die with dignity with family or friends close by. This would have spared the survivors the anguish of not being present at the death of a loved one.

Physicians fortunately have the chance to plan and carry out their own deaths. But shouldn't anyone?

Yes, I know only too well all the time-worn arguments of physicians and religious groups who fight the idea of assisted death. I have had conversations with them on this subject.

They have persuasive arguments:

Bullet Perhaps the person is just depressed and may come out of it.

Bullet Doctors are trained to extend life, not end it.

Bullet The possibility of liability.

Bullet If assisted death is made legal, family members eager to preserve an inheritance might apply subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on a patient to end his or her life.

Furthermore, remembering the Nazi era, many of us question whether society-sanctioned assisted death would not become a way to get rid of those whom society considers disposable.

Assisted death raises many questions. (Note that I do not say "assisted suicide," because the word "suicide," with its connotation of criticism about the moral fiber of the person who chose this route, is repugnant to me.)

Nor do I think, however, that the surviving family should be ridden with the inevitable guilt that survivors of persons who chose suicide usually face.

Assisted death is a kinder and less judgmental term that many persons, who view assisted dying as a fundamental right, might prefer.

Legislation to allow assisted death is a civilized option.

Although one anecdote certainly does not prove anything, I cite the case of a friend in Holland who tells me how happier her last years are now that she and her doctor are in agreement that he will assist her when it becomes necessary.

There are ways to be certain that the option of assisted death is not abused. A small ethics panel -- comprised of one or more carefully chosen physicians, well-trained social workers and members of the clergy -- could easily sort out those cases where there was felt to be either family or societal pressure on the individual or other reasons to deny a request.

Why don't we face this issue squarely in Hawaii? Because we, and this includes all of us -- doctors, legislators, the clergy and the public -- lack the courage to fight for assisted death as the ultimate choice.

This is a wake-up call. Let's not have any more elderly and pain-ridden people have to take this way out because our state denies them this choice.


Ruth Ellen Lindenberg is a member of the
State Legislative Committee of the American Association
of Retired Persons in Hawaii.




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