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Terminally ill people need support, opponent of assisted suicide contends


LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Christians must be actively involved in the fight against assisted suicide to prevent its spread nationwide, said the executive director of Oregon Right to Life.
“Believers must go into every area of the community and discuss it,” said Gayle Atteberry. She was one of the featured speakers at “Counteracting the Culture of Death,” sponsored by Kentucky Right to Life.
“People who are terminally ill are so vulnerable to emotional, financial and family pressure,” she said at the statewide conference, held Oct. 10 in Louisville. “They need your support as much as the unborn child.”
A member of a Conservative Baptist church, she reviewed how apathy led to Oregon becoming the first state to legalize physician assisted suicide in 1994.
After voters in California and Washington voted down similar laws, the “right to death” camp changed tactics, she said. Instead of lethal injections, Oregon proponents suggested allowing a person to take his own life via doctor’s prescription.
That was a key distinction which pro-lifers didn’t heed: “They thought, ‘It lost in California and Washington, it’s a stupid measure,’ so they didn’t get excited about it.”
In addition to apathy, there was considerable confusion over the proposal, said Atteberry. Its supporters portrayed pro-lifers as trying to force people to submit to extraordinary measures, which she said isn’t true.
“With assisted suicide we’re talking about deliberate steps to end life,” she said. “We heard an unending parade of sad stories … some true, others embellished. But a lot of these deaths happened long ago, when there weren’t techniques to help save lives.”
Still, the measure passed by a 51 to 49 percent margin. When her group and others organized a second referendum last year, it passed by a wider margin.
She called the law “scary,” noting a person must take 60 to 100 barbiturates to commit suicide and 25 percent of the time they fail.
In Holland, where euthanasia is legal, doctors prefer it over assisted suicide because it’s much more effective, she said.
Atteberry said a pair of Dutch government surveys uncovered frightening results, including:
— 50 percent of physicians bring up assisted suicide in cases of terminal illness, when patients are “extremely vulnerable.”
— 60 percent of the cases aren’t even reported: “The reason is because they aren’t following the guidelines.”
— 50 percent of patients put to death don’t even request it.
“It’s a very tragic thing that’s happened over there,” she said. “It’s a very tragic thing that we’re stuck with this law [in Oregon].”
The bill’s passage had repercussions, she said, including the relocation of a leading right to die organization from the state of Washington to downtown Portland.
The group, Compassion in Dying, maintains a network of doctors, pharmacists and psychiatrists who favor assisted suicide, she said. They also produce informational booklets and seminars.
In addition, she said, the state-sponsored health plan pays for assisted suicide, but not some life-saving measures; it also capped reimbursements for a popular pain medication.
Assisted suicide operates under a cloak of absolute secrecy, said Atteberry, with such scanty reporting requirements the public will only know how many people died.
“We won’t know why, if they were terminally ill or what happened — any kind of detailed information,” she said. “They’ve even developed a new death certificate and won’t list the cause of death.
“I find it very disturbing we are relying solely on unverified, voluntary information provided by the sole surviving member of the assisted suicide. How trustworthy is that information? Are we going to end up in the same situation as Holland, where [most] of the deaths aren’t even reported?”
The conference attracted considerable media attention since it convened the day after the death of Hugh Finn, a former TV anchorman in the state’s largest city.
Ruled to be in a persistent vegetative state, he died in a Virginia nursing home the week after his feeding tube was removed at his wife’s request.
But two other speakers said assisted suicide is not the same as withdrawing life support. They advised not getting involved in arguments on the merits of the Finn case.
Thomas Marzan, general counsel for the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled in Terre Haute, Ind., said Virginia law allowed his wife to make his decisions.
“Once it was decided he was in a persistent vegetative state, that case was lost,” said Marzan, who has been involved in more than 50 right to die cases.
David Stevens, director of the Christian Medical & Dental Society in Bristol, Tenn., said Finn “is not worth the debate.”
“If we can speak out truthfully and compassionately, we can win this battle,” he said.
A professor from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said the conference underscored the need for educating Christians about the issue.
“Assisted suicide is inappropriate and wrong,” said Ben Mitchell, an assistant professor of Christian ethics.
“People are bowled over by stories they hear and don’t know how to respond except to say, ‘I wouldn’t want to die like that.’ We need to educate them to the fact that they don’t have to die like that.”
The church also has a great opportunity to minister to people and families who are suffering because of terminal illness or other difficult medical situations, he said.

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  • Ken Walker