Fighting For The Right To Die
Dr. Faye Girsh says people should be able to decide how they will leave this life.
Thursday, January 16, 2003
Photo: Dr. Faye Girsh speaks in Carmel on Wednesday.
A terminally ill patient, her body riddled with sores, is rapidly deteriorating. But she is still able to make decisions, and she can still swallow. She has been given the option of palliative care--such as that provided to dying patients by hospice. Two doctors have told her that she has less than six months to live.
Next to her bed sits a prescription for a lethal amount of barbiturates, in pill form, and another bottle of pills to make sure the medication stays down. These are prescriptions that she has been counseled about, which she will take if she feels nature is taking too long.
When Dr. Faye Girsh, Harvard-educated psychologist, speaks about legislation that will allow this woman to end her life and her suffering, it''s with frustration. Girsh, whose research has been cited by both the U.S. and California Supreme Courts, wants people to understand that allowing people to choose to "die with dignity"--usually with doctor-prescribed medication--isn''t about rushing people into death.
"The biggest protection against abuse is that people want to live," she says. "The vast majority of people don''t choose it, but it''s also a great comfort to people to know if their suffering becomes too great they can opt out."
Girsh is senior vice president of the Hemlock Society, a nationwide group that exists to promote "access to the full range of end-of-life choices." Besides lobbying for legislation allowing doctor-assisted, self-induced death (Girsh does not use the word "suicide"), the group also has programs for people with hopeless illnesses and offers legal advice for living wills.
Many groups and individuals whose job it is to provide end-of-life care believe it is not necessary to hasten death. Dr. Deborah Biller, Medical Director of Hospice of the Central Coast, an affiliate of Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, believes that hospice care in a person''s home can provide an almost pain-free situation where the patient''s remaining days can be spent with family and friends.
"We try to encourage patients that they are actually in control and that they are able to direct how their journey goes," she says. "Through physically and emotionally holding their hands, we try hard to help patients and their families resolve any issues they may have."
Biller says she understands, from a personal standpoint, why in a certain cases doctor-assisted death "could be appropriate," but points out that such an act is at odds with the first rule of medicine: the Hippocratic Oath''s "do no harm."
"Most doctors feel it''s a slippery slope," she says. "Once we start allowing patients to direct the hastening of their death, it gets wrapped up in the doctor''s judgment."
But Girsh says polls show that people support aid in dying, although the political climate for such legislation is hostile.
"I don''t think our country is afraid of hastening death," she says. "We are being ruled by a minority. Two-thirds of people polled support legislation, but the Catholic Church spends fantastic amounts of money to dissuade people."
With Attorney General John Ashcroft fighting the legality of Oregon''s Death with Dignity Act (Oregon is the only state to have enacted such a law), the likelihood of further states passing such legislation seems unpromising.
Over the last four years, Girsh says, 91 people have used the Oregon law to legally hasten their death with a doctor''s help.
"If the Oregon law is rescinded, the problem is not going to go away," she says. "There are more and more people on the planet living longer lives and dying of more difficult long-term illnesses."
Girsh will present a lecture, "The Politics of Dying," on Jan. 22 at 7pm, at the Crossroads Community Room in Carmel. Admission is free. For more information call 659-3758. For information on Hospice of the Central Coast call 625-4558.