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Suicide, Unplugged

By Hank Mattimore

DO INDIVIDUALS HAVE a right to take their own lives? That's a question that came into national focus earlier this year, during the debate over removing the late Terri Schiavo's feeding tube. Now, proposed legislation co-authored by California assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka, is adding a whole new dimension to the debate. The bill goes beyond the right of an individual to take his or her life and makes it legal to have a doctor assist in a patient's suicide.

Like Berg, who watched her husband die horribly after suffering a severe stroke in 1987, I am not unaware of the agony good people endure in standing by helplessly while their loved ones suffer from a terminal illness. I personally have experienced this in the case of a close friend of mine, a woman of keen intelligence and wit, who suffered for months, kept alive way beyond her time. I wanted desperately to put her out of her nightmare. There was a moment, standing alone by her bedside, that if I had possessed the courage and was not afraid of the legal consequences, I may well have done the deed.

So I understand the feelings of Assemblywoman Berg and those supporting the legislation in wanting to provide a legal means to end seemingly needless suffering. Those who are promoting this legislation are, I firmly believe, moved by compassion. They want to do no less for their loved ones than we do for our animals.

However, what is important here, it seems to me, is to ensure that legislation balances the rights of the individual with the common good of society. We are a country built on the values of rugged individualism, so it is all too easy for us to get so caught up in demanding our personal rights that we overlook the bigger picture: the greater good of society.

It's one thing to pose the question "Does an individual have the right to commit suicide?" and quite another to ask, "Should we pass a law that allows a doctor to assist him in taking his own life?" That's a far more complex question. Will the common good be served by making it legal for our medical healers to take on the role of legal accomplices to suicide? I don't think so.

I question passing a law that might have the effect of having patients look on doctors not only as protectors of life but as purveyors of death. I'm suspicious of legislation that could tempt overly budget conscious health organizations to encourage people to consider a painless way of death rather than prolonging life at considerably more cost. And if it were all perfectly legal for a doctor to help grandma off herself before she has spent all her finances, isn't it at least possible that the grandkids could encourage her to take that "unselfish" way out?

The law of unintended consequences says yes. In Holland, legislation that started out with good and compassionate intent is now being invoked by doctors to put severely disabled babies to death. In this country, laws legalizing capital punishment had all sorts of safeguards built in to make sure no innocent person was ever put to death. Sadly, we are finding out through DNA technology that our safeguards were full of holes. We need to be very careful in passing legislation that can have consequences that go far beyond what we can foresee. We are talking here about the sanctity of life.

Hank Mattimore is a Santa Rosa resident and the author of 'The Priest Who Couldn't Cheat.' The Byrne Report will return next week.

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From the May 4-10, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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