Two sides square off in debate over right to die 'Final Exit' author, bioethics expert disagree

April 10, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A leader of the right-to-die movement said in Baltimore last night that the medical establishment should help people die if they are near death and ask for assistance.

But an expert in medical ethics countered that argument and said such practices could lead to abuses, especially in a climate of high health care costs.

Those were the polar views of Derek Humphry, author of "Final Exit," the best-selling book about assisted suicide for the dying, and founder of the Hemlock Society, and Dr. Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. The two men squared off in a debate at Temple Oheb Shalom at 7310 Park Heights Ave.

Calling the topic an idea whose time has come, Humphry told an intent audience of more than 700 people that "The essence of the law we seek to introduce is voluntary. If we cannot choose the manner of our death, then we are not free people."

Humphry's 1991 book was inspired by the excruciating death of his first wife, Jean, whom he helped to die by finding her a doctor willing to prescribe drugs that would cause death. The reason doctors must get involved in helping terminally ill patients commit suicide, he said, is because "they control lethal drugs."

On the other hand, Caplan asserted that "this right [to die] should not be granted" because, he said, it would hurt those most vulnerable and could even lead to coerced deaths in an era of diminishing personal contact between doctors and patients.

"People would use it to solve the problem of high medical costs," Caplan declared in the forum, moderated by WJHU radio talk show host Marc Steiner.

Without a system of universal health care coverage, Caplan added, "It is playing with fire to create the right to be killed by a doctor before the right to be treated by a doctor." He told an anecdote about a man asking him if his HMO would list doctor-assisted suicide as an option.

The debate rages inside and outside the medical and legal establishments. Both men referred to the approaching Supreme Court ruling on two states' challenges to the ban on doctor-assisted suicides. Oregon, where the England-born Humphry lives, is close to becoming the first state to allow doctor-assisted suicides, he said.

Yesterday's was the inaugural debate in a free quarterly series open to the public and endowed by Baltimore real estate developer Stewart J. Greenebaum. Future events will focus on subjects as controversial as cloning and Jerusalem.

The series is meant to "engage and enlighten," said Greenebaum, 60. "Recently, I've become discouraged that talk radio dominates the landscape. Sixty-second sound bites are no way to form opinions."

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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