Time to let terminally ill die on their own terms
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Hee Hee, Hah Hah
I once had a teacher who flunked me in history
She asked, 'Who shot Lincoln?'
I answered, 'Don't blame me.'
Hey hey, ho ho, strange things are happening."
Comedian Red Buttons, "The Red Buttons Show," 1952-1955

Red Buttons' line "strange things are happening" caught on with the nation's teenagers back when I was one of them.

But I recall another, later part of Buttons' career, when he became a recognized dramatic actor. In "Ben Casey," a medical drama series starring Vince Edwards televised in the early '60s, he played a man whose wife was dying in great pain and who wanted Dr. Casey, an idealistic surgeon, to help her die. Being 22, I considered it strange that Dr. Casey couldn't help them because euthanasia was against the law.

Already a libertarian, I couldn't understand why an individual didn't have the right to die. What's this Big Government thing that says an individual can't end his own life on his own terms?

I'd thought that when I finished fighting Big Government's strange tax policies, I'd like to start an organization to launch a petition drive to place a question on the Massachusetts ballot for a law allowing "death with dignity."

Such a law has been passed in other states Oregon, Washington state and Montana and a bill has been filed here at the request of a man named Albert Lipkind. Though Mr. Lipkind died four months ago of cancer, the bill was heard at the Statehouse last week.

The legislation, H 1468, contains all the safeguards that reasonable people could want. In order to be prescribed the necessary drugs, an adult 18 years of age or older would have to be suffering from "an incurable and invincible disease that has been medically confirmed and will, within reasonable medical judgment, produce death within six months." There are pages of additional safeguards: Fifteen days must pass between the oral request from the patient until his signed written request, then another 48 hours until the drugs are dispensed. Two physicians must confirm the diagnosis. Witnesses cannot be relatives who would inherit property after the patient's death. No person can apply simply because of disability or age.

This is not a bill to allow death; the patient is already dying and is choosing only a merciful end, similar to the one we give our beloved pets. Who could object to this?

I'm sure the two legislators who were kind enough to file the bill for Mr. Lipkind will find out. I once Googled 'euthanasia' to learn the best way to kill a sick fish and found myself in the midst of an Internet battle on euthanasia policy for people.

Religions that teach that God wants to choose the exact moment of death Himself are entitled to their opinions. But I think separation of church and state means I don't have to listen to them.

I believe that suicide is a sin of ingratitude for the gift of life and am appalled when I hear of people who kill themselves over a lost love, stock-market crash or temporary hardship like high school bullying.

I certainly understand the need for safeguards. I'm sure in the ugly corner of the human universe there are family members who would be happy to encourage a quicker passing for the person who controls their inheritance. The Massachusetts House bill covers and obviates such concerns.

Certainly things have changed for the better since Buttons' character was denied his and his wife's request. Doctors and hospitals are no longer required to keep a terminal patient alive with artificial means if he/she chooses not to accept them. Many of us have signed a living will clarifying our wishes. But there is still a gap, for the occasion when a patient is taking a long, painful, undignified time to die on his own. This is societal sadism, and it's time to end it when both the patient and a willing doctor have a better idea.

By the way, I do want to distinguish this support for H 1468 from any possibility of support for our government deciding to put us down when it runs out of Medicare/Medicaid money, which is going to happen soon. But we're a long way from that discussion right now.

CBS' "60 Minutes" recently did a segment in which it noted that Medicare has paid $50 billion just for doctor and hospital bills during the last two months of patients' lives, and "it has been estimated that 20 to 30 percent of these medical expenditures may have had no meaningful impact. Most of the bills are paid for by the federal government with few or no questions asked."

In my opinion, one question at least should be asked if the patient has been diagnosed as terminal: Do you want to continue dying awhile longer, or not?

I find it interesting that in some discussions about methods of applying the merciful-death medication, the phrase "pushing the red button" is used.

Hey hey, ho ho, it's my life and I'm ready to go.

Hah hah, hee hee, the government ain't the boss of me.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Lowell Sun, Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.

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