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Aid in Dying celebrates right to life

Erik Flesch
By Erik Flesch
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday February 27, 2003

Dr. Merlin "Monte" DuVal, legendary founding dean of the College of Medicine, is pioneering what may be his most significant advancement for the state's medical profession: Arizona's long-overdue "Aid in Dying" bill.

At 8:30 this morning, Dr. DuVal was to lead fellow members of Arizonans for Death with Dignity, the state chapter of the Hemlock Society, in testifying before the House Health Committee in support of a bill allowing terminally ill patients to ask a willing physician to prescribe a lethal dose of medication. The debate set the stage for the bill, HB 2454, proposed by Tucson Democratic Rep. Linda Lopez and sponsored by the nonprofit group and Tucson Democratic Sen. Gabrielle Giffords, to be voted on next session.

The moral foundation of the bill is the principle, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that one's own life is man's fundamental right, that the political freedom to live by the consequences of one's own choices is inalienable, and that one's own happiness is the proper standard of morality.

The primary opponents of the bill are the Roman Catholic Church and other religious conservatives whose dogma prohibits terminally ill patients from legally choosing the terms of their own death.

"Life," Rev. Van Wagner, vicar general of the Diocese of Tucson, said in an interview Tuesday, "is a gift from our creator. We are its stewards, but not its masters."

According to this theological view, one is born in debt; one's life is not a right, but a loan, carrying duties and obligations owed for as long one may live. It holds man is not free, but an indentured servant, a serf forever bound to God.

"Suffering," Van Wagner said, "is not all bad, from a Christian point of view. - Suffering is not good in itself, but the crucifix reminds us that it is not useless," referring to the salvation brought by Jesus' death on the cross.

But Thomas A. Bowden, a Baltimore attorney and senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute, rejects this view: "A proper morality, based on rational self-interest rather than duty, recognizes that suicide may be chosen guiltlessly when circumstances make it impossible to achieve one's own happiness." Arizonans for Death with Dignity has invited Bowden to present his lecture on the moral foundation for the legal right to choose suicide, including assisted suicide, this week.

Earl Wettstein, state chairman of Arizonans for Death with Dignity, said Tuesday that the phrases "aid in dying" or "hastening one's own death" are more accurate than "assisted suicide." "Suicide usually implies that a person's life still has value," Wettstein said. But the purpose of Aid in Dying is to permit patients suffering painful, protracted and agonizing deaths "the ability to control their own destiny."

Wettstein said opponents of Aid in Dying cite the fallacy of the slippery slope and suggest the bill would be abused. But Aid in Dying is modeled directly after an Oregon law approved by voters in 1994 and again in 1997 - and now being appealed by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft - that establishes certain strict safeguards.

Oregon patients have to request the lethal medication three times - twice in writing and once verbally - as well as undergo a psychiatric screening and have two doctors certify the patient has less than six months to live.

Since Oregon's law was passed, only 91 people have exercised their right, while some 60 others who requested the medication opted not to take it - disproving the myth that hordes of people are rushing to hasten their deaths. "Just knowing it is an option has a soothing effect," Wettstein said.

But what if it were more than 91? It would change nothing.

"It's all about choice," said Ruthe Steinberg, vice president of the Tucson chapter of Arizonans for Death with Dignity. "It's just like abortion."

Indeed, in both issues, lives are on the line - the lives of the living. While opponents of both practices pretend to advocate the "right to life," they demand individuals sacrifice their own to God or society. But a free society rejects such arbitrary claims, as Arizona should.

To quote Bowden: "Legislation allowing terminally ill patients to choose death with dignity through physician-assisted suicide is long overdue in Arizona. There is no rational, secular basis for preventing a doctor from prescribing a lethal dosage of medicine to a patient of sound mind who desires to die rather than endure a state of living death."

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