Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

How to (really) save a life

One of the things that makes me most proud to be an Oregonian is our Death With Dignity Law. The citizens of my beloved home state stood up against an onslaught of extremism from religious and right wing entities and decided to make legal the ability for Oregonians to exercise control over one of life's most personal and intimate decisions. That is, to give terminally ill and in-pain patients the legal right to end their life with prescription medication.

Washingtonians are now being asked to ponder whether or not to pass the same law for their state.

In his Monday column, the Seattle P-I's Joel Connelly balks at the notion.

Interestingly, Connelly's objection comes not from arguing the merits of the proposal, but from the xenophobically-rooted notion that influences outside of Washington State are providing funding and resources for the initiative.

One wonders what happened to Joel's conscience raising columns focusing on influences outside of the state when Washington battled I-933, the land-use initiative mirroring Oregon's Measure 37. This land-use regulatory scheme certainly wasn't Washington-grown. And what of the push against I-884? Not exactly an in-state pushback. Where are the Connelly column inches when it came to outing the efforts of D.C.-based FreedomWorks?

On those, Connelly doesn't trot out the "out-of-state interests" argument.

And what of the recently-filed lawsuit by the opponents of I-1000, who wish to keep their funding sources secret? Connelly's outrage is strangely absent here.

And for good reason. Its a tough haul to argue the merits against giving people autonomy over their end-of-life decisions. Once Washington voters know and understand what DWD is about, they'll vote for it. The only choice Joel has is to pile up all the red herrings he can.

Another problem Connelly faces is the fact that so many people have had to watched a loved one die in excruciating pain. Or perhaps their death came after a period of morphine-induced stupor in which the dying's beloveds were unrecognizable through the haze of the bed-ridden. For some patients, the stupor is as dreadful an outcome as the racking pain.

Examples of these stories are as endless as they are fresh. In response to Connelly, Stranger columnist Dan Savage recounted the death of his mother:

I hate to play the I-just-watched-my-mother-die card, but, um, I just watched my mother die.

My mother had pulmonary fibrosis, a degenerative lung condition, and her death came after a long, miserable week in the hospital. (It also came just eight weeks after her doctors had given her two to five years to live.) She knew that pulmonary fibrosis would eventually end her life, and she’d done some research into just what sort of an end she could expect. It wasn’t going to be pretty. She would, when her time came, slowly and painfully suffocate to death.
Somehow I doubt the "outsiders are influencing the vote" debate is gonna fly with those who mourn not just the loss of their loved one, but the wretched end-of-life experience they had to endure.

But Oregonians know from our experience that it isn't just the ability to take the prescription and end a terminally ill, pain-filled life. It's the knowledge that one has control over one's life and one's own pain that gives patients and their families peace of mind.

According to the Oregon Department of Health Services (PDF), 85 prescriptions for lethal medications were written under the provisions of the DWDA in 2007 compared to 65 during 2006. Of these, 46 patients took the medications, 26 died of their underlying disease, and 13 were alive at the end of 2007. In addition, three patients with earlier prescriptions died from taking the medications, resulting in a total of 49 DWDA deaths during 2007.

In the 10 years since the law went into effect, 341 patients have died under the terms of the law. That's an average of 34 people per year (or just under 3 people per month) actually using the prescription to take their life. In addition, the state is receiving no reports of abuse.

People want this law because they want control and autonomy over their personal life decisions.

In the end, its not about the physical act of taking a breath or the beating of a heart or the pattern of brain waves. It's about a life--and what it really means to "save" it. Is my life "saved" if I have less than six months to live and am racked with pain, unable to feed or dress myself? Is my life "saved" if I'm not able to recognize my children or family because of a wide-open morphine drip?

Or is my life "saved" because I have peace, knowing that if the pain is unbearable, I won't have to be alive-but-dead while I slip away? Not to mention the dignity that comes with living my life on my terms.

Its not a decision for anyone else to make: not Joel, not the Church and not the government.

My life. My call.


Blogger Anne said...


August 1, 2008 11:58 AM  

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