Hemlock Society & Foundation of Florida

Death with dignity backer stumps for Iowa law

Barb Ickes | Posted: Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Only two states in the country have passed Roland Halpern’s idea of the “holy grail” of public policy, and Iowa isn’t one of them.

Terminally ill residents of Oregon and Washington can get a prescription from their doctor for life-ending medication under the Death with Dignity Act. Halpern is a spokesperson for Compassion & Choices, an organization that focuses on earning everyone in the U.S. the same right.

He has spent the past couple of days in Iowa, talking to groups at public libraries in Urbandale, Cedar Rapids and Davenport about the increasing frequency of murder-suicides in an aging population.

His speaking tour began the day after a 75-year-old Dixon, Ill., man shot and killed his 73-year-old wife before shooting himself. The couple had been married for 38 years.

“They were both in poor health,” Dixon Police Chief Danny Langloss Jr. said Tuesday. 

Asked whether the killings were related to the couple’s health, he replied, “Very likely that’s what happened.”

Halpern said the scenario is repeating itself too often. Faced with the likelihood of a slow and painful death, some people choose to end their lives through violence because they have no alternative, he said.

Compassion & Choices wants to see more states make it possible for mentally competent, terminally ill patients to choose “a humane death” with a physician’s assistance.

But the role of the doctor would be limited.

“The difference between Death with Dignity and euthanasia is that the choice is with the individual at all times,” Halpern said. “There is a requirement the life-ending medication be self-administered.”

In the 13-year history of Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, an average of 40 people have used a doctor-prescribed lethal dose of medication to end their lives each year. About 30 percent of the people who fill a doctor’s prescription for the life-ending dose do not use it, Halpern said.

Throughout the United States, suicide has been decriminalized. And patients can legally refuse life-saving measures and treatments.

“Paradoxically, however, a terminally ill and dying person can’t request life-ending medication,” he said.

Even though it is illegal in most states, many doctors have admitted helping their patients end their lives, he said.

“They say, ‘Take two teaspoons of this every four to six hours,’” he said. “With a wink and a nod, they add, ‘Drink the whole bottle, and it’ll kill you.’

“We know people do that.”

Halpern doesn’t think they should have to. He refers to the Death with Dignity Act as the “holy grail” of death policy, but he said there are smaller steps that also would be effective.

One of them is getting terminally ill patients into hospice programs sooner.

“Doctors don’t like to admit their patients are dying,” he said. “Hospice is supposed to be a six-month process, but people aren’t being introduced to it until they’re a couple weeks from death. That’s an excellent program that really helps families.

“It prepares families for death, and one premise of hospice is simply pain management. That is very important.”

Halpern got involved with Compassion & Caring for the same reason many people get involved: He watched his father suffer a painful, miserable death.

“He died exactly the way he didn’t want to,” he said. “I was totally helpless to do anything. People shouldn’t have to die that way.”

He said Iowa is likely to lag behind some other states in the so-called aid-in-dying movement. The reason, he said, is that Iowans do not have a voter initiative, allowing them to pass petitions in order to get measures on the statewide ballot.

When the movement is left to state legislators, politicians are less than eager to take a position. The greatest deterrent to aid-in-dying laws is religion, he said.

“We’re taking small steps, such as out-of-hospital DNRs (do not resuscitate orders), which would allow you to wear a bracelet with your wishes,” he said. “We also need to use pain-management drugs, such as morphine, more liberally in terminal cases. We really need laws to be passed, and the majority of people support them.

“In the cases of murder-suicide, sadly, the suicide is often the result of that person’s inability to live with the homicide.”


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