Approaching 'Final Exit'

Elise T. Chisolm

December 03, 1991|By Elise T. Chisolm

SHE'S DYING of cancer, and she wanted to talk to me about the best seller ''Final Exit'' by Derek Humphrey. Oddly enough, I had just finished reading the book.

The book deals with the practicalities of assisted suicide and self-deliverance for the dying.

My friend has about six months, the cancer has spread throughout her body. She is 78.

Many of my friends have had cancer, most of them have not died. But this friend is in constant pain and she wants to have control of her ''final exit.'' She has written a living will and has made sure she will not be kept alive by artificial means.

She debates about a way to end her life with assistance -- a '90s dilemma.

Across America the polls are showing that two-thirds of Americans favor asking physicians to assist in the suicide of a terminally ill patient. Our own newspaper poll showed a preponderance of readers favored legalizing doctor-assisted suicide.

It is a riveting political issue -- and -- like the abortion question with ethical and moral arguments -- it won't go away.

My dying friend and I discussed the recent vote on the Washington State Initiative 119 that allowed a doctor to legally under certain circumstances help a terminally ill patient to die. It did NOT pass. The medical profession is not ready to accept the concept. After all, they have been trained to heal and prolong life. They are afraid the law might be abused.

But who would or should assist? Who wants to play God?

The good news that came from Initiative 119 is this: It is making us look at death differently. We as a society have always hidden our fear of death and have worshiped the good life. We don't want to talk about death, but we now want to peruse our legitimate fears.

Suicides among the elderly have increased by 21 percent in the last six years. For one thing there are more elderly, and there are more machines to keep us alive.

I see euthanasia as a personal-choice issue.

With the AIDS epidemic, there will be more of us, and notice I said US.

People are frustrated with a medical community that seems unfair sometimes with prolonging suffering. Now that life has been extended by science we are frustrated.

After reading ''Final Exit'' I am worried about the depressed teen-ager who reads it. I went along with the first part of the book and admonitions like ''if you are in any doubt, don't do it." And ''Don't persuade the dying person; rather it is advisable to try up to a point to dissuade.'' The author does mention alternatives such as hospice, pain killers and patience.

But when I came to the dozens of drugs listed to do the job -- some mixed with vodka, some mixed with anti-nausea drugs to prevent vomiting -- recipes for dying -- I was repulsed. Especially when Humphrey points out that ''for effective death from drugs the use of a plastic bag is essential . . . I would use a plastic bag to make absolutely certain,'' he writes. This is a hard core do-it-yourself manual.

Euthanasia isn't a business, it is an aesthetic, and for some a theological decision.

If you have watched any one suffer in the last throes of cancer or AIDS, and I have, you will believe something has to be changed.

My husband has had cancer for eight years, and so we have talked about the death-with-dignity agenda. But we both know we could not actively assist someone we love to die. But asking a professional to help -- well, maybe.

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