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This article appeared, in slightly different form, in the National Catholic Register, March 30-April 5, 1997. Copyright © 1997 & 2001 by Mary Meehan.

Assisted-Suicide Foes Stress Alternatives

Mary Meehan

WASHINGTON--When Dr. Carlos Gomez was treating an elderly woman who was severely ill in a hospital--and Medicare was "breathing down my neck"--he suggested transferring her to a nursing home. "It was as if I had taken my foot and stamped out whatever fire was left in her soul," he recalled. The old lady "turned her face to the wall and died three days later."

Gomez, speaking at a March 7-8, 1997, conference on doctor-assisted suicide, had other and happier outcomes to report from his experience with hospice care at the University of Virginia hospital. One involved an AIDS patient who had said that "when this gets very bad, I want you just to kill me." But with pain control, physical therapy and volunteer helpers who became his friends, the man had six good months until he died a natural death "with his family surrounding him."

The conference, held at the Catholic University law school here, was sponsored by the law school, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Center for Jewish and Christian Values. About 200 people attended; many were Catholic diocesan officials or state Catholic Conference staff.

While the Catholic and Jewish traditions share strong opposition to euthanasia on religious grounds, there was an effort to stress non-religious arguments that can be effective in public-policy debates. There was also great stress on alternatives to assisted suicide, including community support for the dying and their families. No form of assistance was too small for comment: "There's great value in the casserole," nurse Alicia Super remarked in speaking of neighborhood support.

Some suggested, however, that positive alternatives may not satisfy people who support assisted suicide for economic reasons. Dr. Edmund Pellegrino of Georgetown University noted that "it's certainly a lot cheaper for someone to die sooner." A doctor who works in managed care, he said, recently asked him what she should do after being asked to "slow down" in caring for elderly patients and handicapped infants. With the cost-cutting enforced by managed care, he asked, "What happens to trust?"

Analyzing current pressures for cost-cutting, law professor Cathleen Kaveny said that legalizing assisted suicide now would be the "moral equivalent of throwing a torch on an oil slick." Kaveny, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame law school, said that "poor, old women" would be the likeliest victims.

Legalizing assisted suicide, Dr. Gomez declared, "makes sense only if you are an empowered, middle- or upper-class American" who "always can get whatever you want" because you always have. The voice of people "at the margin of American society," he remarked, has been "almost completely silenced in this debate. And my fear is that, if we allow assisted suicide, it will be silenced forever."

Several people with serious disabilities told the conference that they feel threatened. "The more we cost the public, the more likely we are to be eliminated," said Mary Jane Owen of the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities. Lisa Gigliotti, a Michigan lawyer who has rheumatoid arthritis, said she "felt like somebody kicked me in the gut" when she heard that Jack Kevorkian had assisted the suicide of a woman with arthritis.

Canadian Mark Pickup, who has multiple sclerosis, said the disability community in Canada has been "staggered by the outpouring of public support" for a man who killed his daughter because she had cerebral palsy. "Imperfect life," he said, "is as cheap as grass, to be mowed down to tidy up a country....It is a scary time to be disabled."

Pickup and others spoke frankly about the depression they had when they first experienced severe disability. "Had Christ not been there, and my dear wife Marie not been there," Pickup recalled, "had instead a Jack Kevorkian offered me to assist in my suicide, I might have taken him up on it."

"You see," he added, "people must grieve....They need to be able to cry out and say the most outrageous things. And it's unfair to hold them to a death wish sought when they were at their lowest point. Civilized societies don't do that."

Everyone, he said, needs community and nurture, "and I found that in the Christian community, spanning various denominations....During my darkest days, if I had not belonged to such a community, I would have wanted to die."

Rabbi David Novak, who teaches at the University of Toronto, also stressed the need for recognizing that we live in a communal order "where no one is abandoned" at any point of life. "I require the assistance of others," the rabbi declared, "even to fight the demons of death within myself."

Dr. Ira Byock, author of the recent book Dying Well, said end-of-life care givers must promise that "you will not die alone." He also remarked that "Jack Kevorkian is a folk hero in America today" because the medical profession hasn't done enough to control pain. "We have to walk our talk," Byock declared.