On a summer afternoon in Portland, Oregon, 68 year-old Margaret Sutherland kissed her five grown children one by one, listened to her son read the 23rd Psalm, gazed out the window toward the Williamette River a final time then hoisted a glass of water laced with nine milligrams of Seconal and drank it all. Within five minutes, she was unconscious. In fifteen minutes, she was dead…just as she wished.
Cancer had already claimed one of her lungs and eaten her ribs. She had lost control of her bowels and coughed blood constantly. The pain was so intense, she could hardly walk.
Doomed to two, three or four more months of suffering before arriving at death, she also considered the hardships being imposed upon her loved ones. Sutherland decided to take advantage of Oregon’s Death With Dignity law, received confirmation of her doom from two doctors and asked for the needed prescription to end her life. When the day arrived, she put on a dress, a little make-up and said her last goodbyes to friends and family. Love abounded, suffering ended. Everyone was at peace, including Mrs. Sutherland.
How can anyone argue with that?
Early in the Bush II term, the so-called “states rights” president dispatched Attorney General John Ashcroft to issue an injunction against the new “state” law to prevent any more suicides. . That decision was overruled by a federal judge citing a Supreme Court ruling in 1997 which concluded that states had the right to legalize physician assisted suicide.
When that ruling came, the people of Oregon voted “yes” to a state referendum — two times — which legalized Death With Dignity. Specifically, a patient must be a resident of Oregon for six months, able to make conscientious decisions, and be diagnosed with a terminal illness with less than six months to live. The bases were covered to prevent abuse or frivolous deaths.
The only other nations that legally permit doctor assisted suicide, are Belgium, Switzerland and Netherlands.
We are supposed to be a compassionate society. What are we waiting for?
Twenty years ago in Florida, 74 year-old Roswell Gilbert shot his wife of fifty years in the head to end her long suffering from arthritis, severe osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s. The shooting was an act of love. He was sent to prison for life. Had a Death With Dignity law been in existence, Mrs. Gilbert could have exercised her choice, and Roswell would never have set foot in a prison.
During my tenure in Homicide, I investigated two or three hundred suicide cases. All were tragic. I saw kids who shot themselves over parental strictness, drug addicts who could not handle life any more, bankruptcy, alcoholics out of control, love affairs gone wild, jealousy, rage, fear, guilt…the emotions ran the gamut. But the most compelling scene, was finding two elderly people embraced in the back seat of a Cadillac, inside a closed garage with the ignition on but the gas tank depleted from the engine running all night. They had been married 55 years. The woman was terminally ill; the man wouldn’t live without her. It was their choice.
We are a nation who constantly champions the rights of people…rights to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom to choose life liberty and the pursuit of happiness in any way we want, so long as it is legal. But we do not champion the rights of those who suffer. We say…take medicine! Hang on as long as you can. Let nature take it’s course, no matter the agony. Rights? What rights?
Florida is home 3.1 million people over 65, or seventeen percent of the state. California has slightly more, but their overall population is double Florida’s. As time passes, we will see the median age of Florida rise as more seniors retire from the north to soak up the winter sunshine. Down the road, some will be destined to great pain as they battle terminal illnesses, but have no choices other than the field of medicine. Why? Because we say so.
I’m one of those who considered Dr. Jack Kevorkian a national hero, a trailblazer who had the guts to stand up to conventional moralists and help people who pleaded for an end to torment. Perhaps someone else come along and champion the rights of the suffering and spearhead a drive for more laws all over the country like the one in Oregon.
I realize that more religious people will argue that it is against God’s will as prescribed in the Bible, or that miracles can always happen. That may be true. when it comes to endless pain, I’m a chicken, and death doesn’t scare me. I fully respect those who elect to exercise the right to die.
If I ever learn that I have a terminal illness and doomed to nightmarish torture and agony, please do not tell me about pain management, or hospice care, or psychological counseling. Please don’t preach to me or make me take pills and more pills. If Florida hasn’t come of age, I’m moving to Oregon in plenty of time so I may follow in the idyllic path of Mrs. Sutherland, or that couple in the Cadillac. And like Mrs. Sutherland, I’ll do it, not only for myself, but for the people I love.