Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, November 16, 1999

Future is uncertain for
physician-aided suicide

A self-righteous Congress seems to have the votes to override Oregon's 1997 ratification of physician-assisted suicide and to ban all 49 other states from even considering the matter.

The House vote was 271-156. Nose-counters predict majority support when the Senate votes. Both majorities, fortunately, will be without Hawaii's members.

President Clinton's stand is uncertain. He has expressed some sympathy with the move but his attorney general is opposed. She earlier prevented the Food and Drug Administration from cutting off medications to Oregon doctors.

"Self-righteous" correctly describes the spirit of the House majority, led by Rep. Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican who also led the Clinton impeachment. Lacking, however, are compassion, respect for state's rights, and respect for free choice. Americans, according to most polls, are strongly sympathetic to physician-assisted death as a voluntary option to end incurable suffering.

THE Supreme Court of the United States has permitted doctor-assisted death in Oregon and suggested that "the laboratory of the states" be left to work out other approaches to this question. Some see the move in Congress as nose-thumbing at the Supreme Court.

For shame! Imagine a suffering person lying on a bed before you. Some people will see nobility in the suffering -- a penance to God that will earn an after-life reward. But others, including quite a few religious people, would see this as a case where assisted death would be compassionate and acceptable to their God. Still others will worry that if assisted death is permitted it will be abused. People will be killed who do not want to die.

All three views deserve respect. That is why it is desirable -- since the Supreme Court has found no right of choice in the U.S. Constitution, as with abortion -- to allow assisted death to be worked out state-by-state.

Despite the nationwide support for the concept of assisted death, more concern exists over specific proposals to implement it. This is an area where state-by-state solutions can be worked out and tested. Oregon's law is so restrictive that only 15 people used it in 1998.

GOVERNOR Cayetano's Blue Ribbon Panel on Living and Dying With Dignity recommended in 1998 that Hawaii approve a broader but still very restricted permission. This has not yet had a serious hearing by the Legislature.

Our legislators took such heavy bruises in the 1998 fight over same-sex marriage that the last thing they wanted in 1999 was another hot potato. Maybe next year. As one of the 11-7 majority for assisted death on the governor's panel, I have my fingers crossed on our year 2000 chances but think 2001, after a new election, is a possibility.

Congress should not put a national policy in our way. Its bill is a wolf in sheep's clothing disguised as a Pain Relief Act. It allots $5 million to do more training and education to improve end-of-life care. Very laudable.

But its hammer is a threat of loss of license and up to 20 years in prison for physicians aiding a suicide. This threat is sure to discourage, not improve, pain treatment for millions of Americans.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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