Ethics

CHOOSING SUICIDE

Right-to-die activists are fighting new battles

KEN MACQUEEN August 5 2002
Ethics

CHOOSING SUICIDE

Right-to-die activists are fighting new battles

KEN MACQUEEN August 5 2002

CHOOSING SUICIDE

Ethics

KEN MACQUEEN

Right-to-die activists are fighting new battles

JIM ROMNEY is going fishing. At 57, the former Oregon high school principal and superintendent looks the very model of a mutual fund ad for early retirement. The kitchen of his new home in Tualatin, south of Portland, is awash in sunshine and the rich scent of brewing coffee. His fishing tackle is at the ready. But Romney, in his soft, matter-of-fact way, is discussing his plans for suicide.

“I want to live forever, of course,” says Romney, who was diagnosed a year ago in June with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The ultimately fatal disease will gradually destroy all voluntary muscle control, leaving him paralyzed. “By the same token, I don’t want to live a life without any dignity, and I don’t want to die without dignity,” he says firmly. “It’s a matter of choice.”

In Oregon—to the distress of the Bush administration, the Roman Catholic Church and the religious right—there is indeed a choice. It’s the only jurisdiction in the U.S. or Canada allowing the terminally ill—defined as people with less than six months to live—the option of doctor-assisted suicide. Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act came into force in 1997, after two statewide initiatives approved the measure.

The law, first proposed in 1994, has been in and out of its own death bed for eight years. It has survived several court challenges, a repeal effort and two attempts by Congress to override it. The latest challenge comes from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose own unbending religious beliefs are forged in the fiery teachings of the Assemblies of God, an arm of the Pentecostal church. Ashcroft tried to circumvent the state law by declaring that assisted suicide was not “a legitimate medical purpose.” In April, a federal judge rejected his authority to interfere, but Ashcroft’s department will appeal.

Amid such fierce opposition, no other

state or provincial legislature—or the Parliament of Canada—have enacted similar laws. But in Canada—where counselling or aiding suicide is a crime punishable by up to 14 years in jail—the issue has again been forced onto the public agenda. Evelyn Martens, a 71-year-old Victoria area woman and member of the Right to Die Network of Canada, has been charged with aiding and counselling the suicides of two B.C. women. Martens faces a preliminary hearing starting on Nov. 13.

The case is certain to resurrect many of

the wrenching issues raised in 1993 by Sue Rodriguez, a Victoria mother dying of ALS. Then, the Supreme Court of Canada narrowly rejected her bid to have a doctor speed her death. In 1995, a Senate committee, after 14 months of hearings, opposed changing the laws by a narrow margin. The reasons cited then are those that have long divided the population: opposition to suicide on religious and moral grounds; the ethical and legal concerns of doctors; and fears that suicide might mask the murder of the disabled, the weak and the vulnerable in society.

Rodriguez, however, was already dead when the Senate released its report. Her

suicide was assisted by a doctor, who was not identified in a subsequent investigation. Such deaths are widespread despite the law, say Canadian proponents of assisted suicide. Driving the issue underground causes botched suicides and places a huge burden on surviving family members, who can expect an investigation into any unnatural death, says Ruth von Fuchs, 61, a Toronto reference librarian and spokeswoman for the Right to Die Network. “People who are tired and weak and frightened are given reason to be more frightened and more isolated,” she says. “People don’t deserve that; dying is not a crime.”

The network, which is raising funds for Martens’s defence, offers support for the dying, lobbies for changes in the law, and operates DeathNET, an Internet information clearing house on the issue. It also sells to adult members a series of booklets called The Art and Science of Suicide. The provision of information isn’t a crime, says von Fuchs. “The book about carbon monoxide tells people what kind of hose to buy,” she says. Another explains how sedated people can use a bag to end their lives by rebreathing their own oxygendeprived air. The network even sells a bag with “some slight improvements over a garbage bag or a large freezer bag.” Legally, selling such materials “is getting a little more into the doubtful area,” she concedes, “but what we regard ourselves as doing is we save people from shopping.”

The Oregon act requires that mentally competent, terminally ill adults, after consultation with two physicians, take their own fatal dose of medication. It is not as sweeping as euthanasia laws in the Netherlands and Belgium, which allow another individual—a doctor—to cause the death.

When Romney faced his impending death, he sought help from Compassion in Dying. The Oregon office of the nonprofit agency is located in a three-storey building on a leafy side street in a Portland neighbourhood of ethnic restaurants and funky antique shops. There’s a place in the adjoining lot for “customer parking” but there’s no identifying sign. The organization, and those seeking its services, have no wish to confront right-to-life pickets, who consider suicide to be as morally wrong as abortion.

George Eighmey, 61, a lawyer and executive director of the Oregon office, deals

New charges in B.C. are certain to resurrect many of the wrenching issues raised around the 1994 suicide of Sue Rodriguez, who was dying of ALS

with death and dying on a daily basis. While many people the organization counsels will eventually swallow their prescription—usually a fast-acting barbiturate like Nembutal—“some of them will never use it,” he says. “Some just find comfort in going through the process.”

Eighmey, who has attended 14 “hastened deaths,” says most slip peacefully into a fatal coma, surrounded by family or friends. Most deaths occur within minutes, although in two of 21 deaths in the state last year, the patients lingered, unconscious, for more than a day before dying. Eighmey, curiously enough, finds the work inspiring, saying, “It has made me more appreciative of life.” The Oregon law is a model being watched by other states and nations, not to mention legions of critics, he says. “I think it’s just going to take time for other states to recognize that accusations about what terrible, dastardly things will happen will not come true.”

Concerns that the act would be a magnet for the terminally ill, turning Oregon into a kind of Club Dead, have proved

groundless. The state’s own examination of the law’s first four years found 91 people died by lethal medication by the end of 2001, although 141 lethal prescriptions were written. That’s far less that one death in a thousand in Oregon. The state also found no evidence that those who committed suicide are clouded by pain, too poor to afford medical treatment, uneducated or otherwise vulnerable to coercion. A disproportionate number of the dead are college educated, the report notes. The top reasons given for choosing suicide: loss of autonomy, decreasing ability to enjoy life, and lack of control of bodily functions.

Already Romney has lost strength and dexterity in his hands, walking is more difficult and his weakening lung capacity causes him to speak softly, pausing frequently to take a breath. It’s the looming and inevitable loss of mobility and control that weighs most heavily. “Gosh, imagine being just sort of trapped in your own body, lying there with a cognizant mind,” he says. “It would be awful.” He calls an eventual decision to end his life an exercise of “individual rights.” He feels so strongly about the federal attorney general’s attempt to override the state law that he became a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Ashcroft that now lingers in the courts.

Romney, whose mother was born and raised in Cardston, Alta., has an extended Mormon family on both sides of the border. Although he doesn’t practice the faith, he says they support his decision. His wife Kathy, a devout Christian, also respects his choice, although suicide is not a course of action she or his relatives would take.

He doesn’t know when death will come, but he has often visualized the scene. His wife and four children will be there. He likens it to a birth, but instead of the baby crying and the family rejoicing, the roles will be reversed. “I’m going to be laughing, carrying on, having a good time, and my family will be crying,” he says. “That’s OK. It will be so peaceful to be able to die that way, closing the circle. I’ll probably have a nice old touch of single-malt Scotch, and off we go.”

But not today. Today is for chasing steelhead in an Oregon river—strictly catch and release.“They’re just too beautiful to keep,” he says with a wistful smile. “They deserve to live.”