Let the dying have choices

Post-publication update:  The legislation discussed here did not pass.

I came home from dinner one evening and found my dog lying on the kitchen floor. She couldn’t get up.  After I helped her up, she couldn’t walk.

My dog was old.  Her back legs had been weakening for months. She couldn’t see or hear much, was experiencing dementia, and was showing clear evidence of pain.

I had been preparing myself for the difficult decision I would have to make some day. Did I say difficult?  Heartwrenching.

Our pets are so lucky. When they are too sick or too infirm and their lives are mostly suffering, we can arrange for them to die peacefully, painlessly and almost instantly, with the help of a compassionate veterinarian and some drugs. It’s been said this is the most loving thing we can do for our beloved pets.

So I’ll point out a truth you might have heard a hundred times.  In this most crucial matter, we can be kinder to our dogs and cats than we are allowed to be to our own families. New Mexico law does not allow us to help each other to die in peace.

The issue is in the legislature this year in House Bill 171, sponsored by Deborah Armstrong (D-Albuquerque)  and Bill McCamley (D-Las Cruces). The bill permits a qualified health care provider to assist a person to obtain aid-in-dying medication as long as the person has capacity to make the decision himself or herself, has a terminal illness, has made the request voluntarily and is physically able to self-administer the medication. It provides civil and criminal immunity for the health care provider and other caregivers who may be involved.

There’s a long definition for the word “capacity” to clarify that it means the ability to understand the nature and consequences of the decision.

I have never understood why anybody thinks the law should force dying people to suffer.

Some opponents argue the religious case that only God can give and take away life, but that should not be forced on others who believe differently. Opponents also argue that the power to end a life can be abused by, for example, greedy family members anxious to get their hands on grandma’s money.

The other side of that coin is a whole range of abuses under our current system. Among other things, we have heard about dying patients stuck in hospitals, receiving excessive, unnecessary, and invasive tests or treatments that will probably not lengthen their lives and will make the quality of their last days significantly worse.

New Mexico’s current law, which prohibits physician aid in dying, was challenged a few years ago in a court case, which concluded last June when the state Supreme Court reaffirmed the status quo. As I read the Supreme Court ruling, the justices don’t want to make this decision but think it belongs in the legislature.

Medical aid in dying is now legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Montana and most recently Colorado, which approved it by means of a voter initiative last year.

According to University of New Mexico law professor Rob Schwartz, who helped write this bill, the use of aid in dying has been studied in these states, especially Oregon, where it’s been legal the longest. It has universally been found to work as intended, that is, used only by small numbers of terminally ill individuals. And, said Schwartz, it’s been found that just knowing they have access to this medication has been a source of comfort to those individuals.

Most of us, I think, hope to live a full and healthy life to the last day and die peacefully in our own beds. But if it doesn’t work out that way, we ought to be able to choose to die as painlessly as our dogs. It’s as simple as that.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2017

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