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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Enact 'death with dignity'

By David Shapiro

The bill allowing physician-assisted suicide made me nervous in the Legislature last year.

A "death with dignity" law had been enacted in only one other state, Oregon, and the untested measure faced a Bush administration challenge in federal court. It worried me that the right to die could become an obligation to die for gravely ill patients who didn't wish to burden their families.

I didn't see the harm in taking another year to think about it.

Well, a number of people facing hopelessly terminal, disabling and painful diseases — who didn't have another year to think about it — took exception to my hand-wringing at the expense of their pain and suffering.

Since I admitted it was a choice I'd want for myself in their situation, they accused me of hypocrisy for denying them the choice now.

I could only conclude that they were right and it's time we enact this law without further delay. People who suffer unbearably should not have to wait for their rightful choice to die on their own terms while people like me waffle.

Especially compelling was a cancer patient who phoned to explain that he still found life worth living but feared his condition might become intolerable as the cancer spread to his brain.

His haunting dilemma: end his life before he was ready while he was still capable of taking matters into his own hands, or wait and risk finding himself so enfeebled that he could neither act by himself nor legally obtain assistance.

Is this the choice we want to force on fellow citizens facing horrendous suffering?

Concerns from last year have been addressed. Only a relative handful of people in Oregon have used the law, and safeguards to prevent the ill and elderly from being coerced into ending their lives are working. The Bush administration's challenge failed.

The House passed the bill 30-20 last year, and it lost by only two votes in the Senate. The Hawai'i Women's Coalition has introduced it again this year, but support has diminished in the face of opposition from Gov. Linda Lingle. Former Gov. Ben Cayetano had been its biggest booster.

Opponents make the mistake of confusing assisted suicide, in which the patient makes an informed decision to end his or her own life, with euthanasia, in which a doctor or a family member makes the decision to end the patient's suffering.

This bill prohibits euthanasia, and safeguards seek to assure that treatable depression, loneliness, guilt and poor care aren't behind the wish to die.

Nevertheless, Lingle opposes the measure on the grounds that assisted suicide is a "slippery slope" that could lead to euthanasia.

By that argument, Lingle's proposed tax break for Ko Olina developers is a slippery slope that could lead to budget-busting tax breaks for all Hawai'i development. But we don't have to go to the extreme in either case if we don't want to.

This isn't about the wishes of doctors, family members, politicians and religionists. It's about the wishes of suffering patients and the right of each of us to make informed personal decisions for ourselves.

When we reach different conclusions on matters of personal conscience, it's almost always better to leave the choice to the individual rather than the government.

This is Republican gospel. Lingle's agenda champions more individual choice in education, economic opportunity, healthcare and political leadership.

How can those of us who favor more choice in these matters argue credibly if we deny informed choice on this most personal issue of life and death?

David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.