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Guest Column: Terminally ill don't have to die in pain, give up autonomy

Guest Column: Terminally ill don't have to die in pain, give up autonomy

Those close to death have options other than assisted suicide

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Terminally ill don’t have to die in pain, give up autonomy

BY KATHLEEN M. GALLAGHER For The Daily Gazette

Kathleen M. Gallagher is director of Pro-Life Activities for the New York State Catholic Conference in Albany.

“My life. My death, My choice.”

That’s the slogan of the assisted suicide advocacy organization called “Compassion and Choices.” They used to be called the Hemlock Society, and they promote the so-called “right to die.”

They are currently working with a 29-year-old terminally ill woman named Brittany Maynard. She has become something of a social media sensation, with her on-line video having been viewed more than 5 million times.

In the video, Brittany explains her diagnosis of brain cancer and the medical prognosis of only months to live. She is a sympathetic person, a newlywed, attractive, always adventurous … hiking, kayaking, traveling … things she continues to do while she is able.

But Brittany says she is choosing

Guest Column

to die on her own terms. She has moved from California to Oregon because Oregon law allows for doctor-assisted suicide. She has already asked for and received a lethal dose of drugs from a physician there, pills that she plans to ingest while in her home surrounded by her family.

How very, very sad.

I can understand fear of pain and suffering. But ask any doctor who works with cancer patients or the terminally ill and they will tell you that the level of opioids available today work magnificently in treating physical pain. Side effects of the drugs can be managed effectively, and palliative care is top-notch in this country. It’s the emotional pain that is harder to manage.

Terminal patients often fear losing their dignity, being a burden on others , losing the ability to do the things they have always done. For someone as young and active as Brittany, it must be particularly difficult.

In her video, Brittany’s mom says that her daughter has always been a “very autonomous person.” Perhaps that is what Brittany fears most: losing her autonomy. Statistics from states with legal “aid-in-dying” reveal that loss of autonomy is the number one reason cited for choosing death. In Washington state, 91 percent of patients requesting lethal drugs cited it, while only 36 percent cited concern about possible pain.

Thankfully, New York state law prohibits physician-assisted suicide, a law that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997. In the unanimous decision, the justices said, “New York's reasons — including prohibiting intentional killing and preserving life; preventing suicide; maintaining physicians' role as their patients' healers; protecting vulnerable people from indifference, prejudice, and psychological and financial pressure to end their lives; and avoiding a possible slide towards euthanasia — are valid and important public interests.”

These reasons are perhaps even more valid today, as health care rationing has begun and insurance companies search for the least expensive “treatment” for terminal illness.

I’ve always wondered why advocates of assisted suicide would limit the “assistants” to doctors. I mean, if it’s so wonderful, why not allow other professions to take part in the public service? Police officers could leave their loaded weapons on the hospital bedside, walk away, and allow the patients to use them. Sound absurd? Of course it is. In every other circumstance, our society tries to prevent suicide, sending first responders with the message, “Don’t do it!”

I can’t help but feel that Brittany Maynard is being exploited as a fund-raising tool by Compassion and Choices. They have a campaign on their website in Brittany’s name to raise money to legalize assisted suicide in all 50 states. It makes me wonder if suicide really is Brittany’s free choice.

Brittany says she wants to “pass in peace,” and to “die with dignity.” I wish I could tell her “You can! You don’t need to kill yourself! You can enjoy a peaceful, natural death, in relative comfort, surrounded by love and acceptance and grace. You haven’t lost your dignity because you are sick, weakened or dependent on others. Life is a gift. It is always worth living.”

Kathleen M. Gallagher is Director of Pro-Life Activities for the New York State Catholic Conference in Albany.

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