By KATHY SCHMUGGE
COLUMBIA — When Jack Kevorkian said that he would have offered assisted suicide to Christ as he hung on the cross, it should have given a clear signal to all Christians that the messenger and message of assisted suicide was lethal both physically and spiritually.
Death and dying are words that often cause fear or discomfort. The topic is purposely avoided in conversation or simply ignored as a nonissue by the young and old. But being silent on issues relating to death, does not prolong this inevitable event. In fact, ignorance could actually be lethal for one who finds himself or a loved one nearing death’s door unprepared or uninformed about the existing threat to preserving life for the elderly, disabled and terminally ill.
In order to educate the public on how to protect the sanctity of life for vulnerable members of society, the South Carolina Citizens for Life (SCCL) sponsored Life Conference 2000 on Sept. 11 at the Sheraton Inn. During the conference, experts and concerned citizens discussed assisted suicide and euthanasia. These inhumane practices that once horrified the public are rapidly gaining acceptance in the Unites States with little resistance.
Assisted suicide, now legal in Oregon, is defined as “intentionally providing the means for someone to kill himself or herself,” whereas active euthanasia (direct killing) is “an affirmative action to directly kill a patient” which is not legal in the United States but is legal in the Netherlands.
“Assisted suicide/euthanasia is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” said Burke Balch, Medical Ethics director for the National Right to Life Committee. The conference’s featured speaker, he worked with the Civil Rights Commission for the Medical Rights of Disabled Children, authored many professional studies and papers and has spent his adult life researching workable solutions to the difficult end of life issues faced by patient and doctor. As a lawyer, he has served as chief council for the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and was staff council for Americans United for Life Legal Defense Fund.
“You don’t solve a problem by getting rid of the people with the problem,” said Balch, who quoted from two well-regarded studies that over 90 percent of those who committed suicide in the United States and United Kingdom were clinically determined to have a treatable mental illness. Balch questions the judgment of a person who requests assisted suicide and sees the request as a means of crying for help not for death.
“People are also afraid of becoming a burden and losing their independence,” he said and he worries that the pro-euthanasia groups will use that concern to make the elderly, chronically ill and disabled feel a “duty to die.”
Although assisted suicide and euthanasia is not yet legal in South Carolina, there continues to be a growing consensus that it could soon be a national battle with rising medical costs and a growing population of elderly. Balch and a panel of local experts discussed a few ways to turn the tide of public opinion by disseminating the truth about the “Right to Die movement” and bringing attention to existing bills, legislature and medical practices of which everyone needs to be aware. Misinterpreted living wills, the consideration of food and hydration as medical treatment, and involuntary euthanasia are sad realities that can be fought by individuals today.
“The day the federal courts ruled that food and water was a medical treatment, every chronically ill and disabled person became a target for death,” said panel expert Wayne Cockfield, a retired sergeant in the Marine Corps who lost both of his legs in the Vietnam War and is a national advocate for the disabled. He explained that food and water are basic needs and should not be placed in the same category as medical treatment since every person will die without them. The Florence native has been an excellent example of how much an individual can do. As a national speaker and articulate voice for life, he has been extremely influential with lawmakers through the country in upholding the medical rights of the disabled and chronically ill.
Another member of the panel, Dr. Paul Eleazer, a tenured professor of Geriatric Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of South Carolina, describes himself as a “good ol’ country doctor” who is trying to keep his patients alive.
“End of life issues come up weekly for me, and although it can be challenging, I am not uncomfortable with death or the dying. I am, however, very concerned with the rise in euthanasia,” said Eleazer.
He cited some studies done in the Netherlands where 50 percent of the physicians recommend euthanasia to their patients and 37 percent of mentally competent patients were euthanasized (actively killed) without consent in 1999. One of the doctors was quoted as saying he killed a dying patient because he needed the bed.
In the United States Eleazer has heard of cases of assisted suicide/ euthanasia done subtlety. “A doctor told a distressed patient with AIDS the lethal dose of one of his medications,” said Eleazer, who questioned the need for giving out that information to someone in such mental and physical anguish. Giving an overdose of medication can be another way a doctor, who may be acting out of compassion, does a morally wrong and currently illegal act.
Even something as widely used as a Living Will can be an unwanted death sentence, depending on the hospital or state in which one lives. If the language in the document is vague and not carefully drafted, medical professionals and lawyers can, for example, broadly interpret food and water to be extraordinary means for survival or deny a respirator to an elderly patient temporarily suffering from smoke inhalation. Fortunately for South Carolina, SCCL has carefully drafted its version of a Living Will called a “Will to Live.” Balch points out that this form, available at the SCCL office, takes on the premise that the patient wants medical treatment, listing some exceptions and special circumstances, whereas, the Living Will does the opposite. In addition, the Will to Live form requires a health care power of attorney to serve as an advocate for the dying person, clearly relaying the patient’s desires, if necessary.
Because any state can be affected by national policies, Balch urged people to stay informed of current issues relating to health care. He told participants to contact their state representatives regarding a bill that will be voted on next week, the Pain Relief Promotion Act. It prohibits the use of federally controlled substances for assisted suicide and encourages their proper use in pain management.
Death does not discriminate, and although one may try to run from it, death comes as either a welcomed guest or uninvited thief. When one believes in God-given destiny, death comes with a devine purpose as it did for Christ on the cross “Father into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 22:46).
Citizens for Life and organizations like Hospice are working hard to make the final days as peaceful as possible for the dying and their families, respecting the dignity of every individual until their last God-given breath.
For more information or a copy of the Will to Live form, contact South Carolina Citizens for Life at (803) 252-LIFE.