Daughter: Parents’ suicide highlights a need for assisted suicide

By Lexi Salazar, Cape Cod Times

Betsy Van Dorn believes her parents would have lived longer if they had the option of legally taking their own lives.

“My mother became terrified that she’d be stuck in a hospital with no way to get out,” said Van Dorn, a Wellfleet summer resident whose parents committed suicide in 2002 when they were both in failing health.

Van Dorn is the daughter of Adm. Chester Nimitz Jr., a U.S. Navy veteran who served in two wars and was the son of the commander of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II. She said her parents feared reaching a stage of helplessness and not being able to take action to end their lives when they wanted to.

“It would have given them huge peace of mind to know that when things got worse they could choose to end things,” she said.

Van Dorn supports Question 2, the so-called Death with Dignity initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot.

This law would allow a Massachusetts-licensed physician to prescribe medication to a terminally ill patient that could be used to commit suicide. The patient would have to be a mentally capable adult resident diagnosed with an incurable disease expected to be fatal within six months. Once the medication was requested, the physician would have to determine whether the patient were qualified.

If the patient seemed to have impaired judgment, the physician would be required to refer the person to a mental health expert. The physician would be required to recommend that the patient notify a family member and recommend that another person be present when the patient takes the medicine.

Under the law, participation by a health-care provider would be voluntary.

If voters pass the initiative, Massachusetts would become the third state – after Oregon and Washington – to permit physician-assisted suicide. Both the Massachusetts and Washington laws are closely modeled on the Oregon law.

Some on Cape Cod have their doubts about the proposal and the specifics of how it is written.
“The law as it is written now, to simply put it in terms of a six-month personal illness, it leaves too much open,” said the Rev. Carl Evans of Christ Lutheran Church in Falmouth. “I can see there being too many possibilities for abuse of the law, maybe not even intentional abuse.”

He agrees with the philosophy, but not with the specifics of the proposed law.

“I believe that people get to be moral agents; they get to make moral choices,” Evans said. “It would be more acceptable to me for it to be legalized … if it wasn’t so broad.”

Mark Horan, spokesperson for the Committee Against Physician-Assisted Suicide, a statewide group based in Boston, said his members might disagree on the issue of physician-assisted suicide but they all believe this particular law needs to have tighter requirements.

“We think this is a deeply flawed question,” Horan said. “That’s why we have people in favor of physician-assisted suicide and against physician-assisted suicide in the same coalition.”

The law should require, for example, that a patient consult a mental-health care expert along with a palliative-care expert, he said. The committee also believes that a family member should be notified of the request and that a physician be present when the drug is taken.

“The potential for not completing the task is extremely dangerous for patients,” he said.

The Massachusetts Medical Society announced its opposition to ballot Question 2 in September.

Its members do not like, for example, the six-month diagnosis clause, because they don’t think it is possible to predict life expectancy. They also believe the law lacks any requirements to ensure that the patients could make an informed decision.

But Van Dorn sees the proposed law as giving people such as her parents the choice of how their lives end. “I don’t consider it tragic or unfortunate that they chose to go together,” she said. “We were supportive, and they had a peaceful and dignified exit.”

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