Bob Wallace watched his grandfather die an agonizing death. The Sun Lakes man does not intend to go the same way. Freda Anderson’s husband died quickly from cancer but repeatedly asked her to hasten his death as she struggled to find hospice care and make end-of-life choices.
“When it comes to dying, none of us are prepared,” said Anderson, of Scottsdale. “There’s nobody to guide you. There’s so much education to be done.”
Wallace and Anderson will be among 100 or more people expected at Wednesday’s Million Geezer March on the Legislature to call for a state law allowing physician-assisted suicide, or at least a hearing on the bill, sponsored by Rep. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson.
HB2313 would allow physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to people with less than six months to live, if the patient is deemed competent to make such a request and if their diagnosis has been confirmed by two doctors.
The measure is similar to Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, approved by voters for the second time in 1997 and challenged in court ever since.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court quashed the Bush administration’s opposition to the Oregon law, ruling that states have the right to regulate their own doctors and the federal government has no right to go after them, even if they prescribe medication to hasten death.
Leaders in Arizona’s rightto-die movement believe that decision, together with the rising wave of aging baby boomers, will lead more states to enact assisted-suicide laws, even Arizona.
The bill won’t get a hearing this year, said Rep. Doug Quelland, R-Phoenix, chairman of the House Health Committee, one of two panels to which the bill was assigned.
“What I really need to do for the benefit of members of the House is to hear bills that have some chance of getting through. And this has none,“ Quelland said.
Similar right-to-die bills have been introduced for at least a decade at the Legislature, and they’ve rarely received a hearing. Opposition comes from religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, physicians and hospice groups.
“We believe that all life is important and sacred and deserves to be protected,” said Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference. “We can’t say just because these people are in a more infirm state that it’s OK to kill them.”
But if they’re already dying, Wallace said, people should be allowed to determine their own end.
“If you have theological or other grounds for opposing it, that’s fine,” said Wallace, a retired philosophy professor and president of the Sun Lakes chapter of Compassion & Choices Arizona. “What we advocate is choice.”
Death is a difficult topic that lawmakers would prefer to avoid, the bill’s proponents say, but pressure will mount for them to take action as baby boomers demand it.
“This law will pass. . . . It’s just a matter of time,” said John Abraham, executive director of Compassion & Choices Arizona. “It’s too bad they want to quash public debate on such an issue.”
People already have the ability to hasten their death in a painless, peaceful way, said Dr. Gillian Hamilton, a medical director with Hospice of the Valley. Up to one-third of families of people with advanced dementia, for example, request that antibiotics be withheld if their loved one contracts an infection.
“Stopping eating and drinking is the most comfortable way to die,” she said. “Everybody has the right to refuse intervention. Often (that’s) enough to bring about the end of life.”
Hamilton said hospice patients have asked her to help end their lives and she refuses to do so, both as a physician and as a Buddhist. In those cases, she said, “I’ve found that what people are really asking is to have someone walk by their side.” Many people don’t know about hospice care or the end-of-life choices available to them and their families, she said.
Right-to-die activists say the Oregon experience shows that fears of mass suicide or abuse of the law are unfounded.
From 1998 to 2004, 208 Oregonians used the law to end their lives, according to the state’s seventh annual report on the Death with Dignity Act. In 2004, 40 physicians wrote a total of 60 prescriptions for lethal doses of medication, the first decrease in the number of such prescriptions written since the law took effect. More than 75 percent of the 37 Oregonians who died under the law in 2004 had terminal cancer.