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PRO: PATIENTS NEED RANGE OF CHOICES IN THE FACE OF PAIN AND SUFFERING.

Byline: Erwin Chemerinsky and Judith Daar

THE emotionalism surrounding the right to die reached a fever pitch as Congress, the president and virtually every media outlet weighed in on the case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who languished in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years.

The heated rhetoric and angry accusations have done little to heal our nation's cultural divide, but the attention on death and choice may stir Californians to pay greater mind to a pending bill which expands our choices in end-of-life matters.

In February, two assembly members introduced the Compassionate Choice Act, AB 654, a law modeled after the Oregon Death With Dignity Act, which would allow physicians to assist terminally ill patients in ending their lives in a humane and dignified manner. The California law, like the Oregon DDA, authorizes physicians to prescribe lethal doses of controlled substances to terminally ill residents according to stringent procedures designed to protect vulnerable patients and ensure that their decisions are reasoned and voluntary.

The introduction of the California Compassionate Choice Act coincided, coincidentally, with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to review a challenge to the Oregon law by the Department of Justice.

In 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a directive seeking to stop physician-assisted suicide in Oregon by criminalizing medical procedures specifically authorized by state law. Both a federal district court in Oregon and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against the attorney general, ruling that the federal government had no authority to stop Oregon's DDA because the law falls within the state's exclusive authority to regulate the practice of medicine within its borders.

While the plight of Terri Schiavo did not involve the question of physician-assisted suicide - the battle was over the removal of her feeding tube - she became a symbol of the helplessness that often accompanies the journey between life and death. For those whose illnesses place them squarely and directly on that path, the aid of a physician who is uniquely capable of easing the pain and anxiety of one's final days can provide great comfort to a patient struggling to retain the last vestiges of dignity.

We hope that California will seize this poignant moment to adopt the proposal now before it to enact a death with dignity law.

The Oregon experience shows the many positive developments that come from recognizing this fundamental personal right. In its seven-year history, the law has been activated by a scant 208 people, a fraction of the eligible Oregonians who have passed this world. But myriad personal accounts reveal that the act has comforted thousands of irreversibly ill patients who found the safety net of physician assistance a tempering force against impending death. Moreover, the law's presence has been linked with advances in palliative, comfort and hospice care - all essential allies on the road home.

No choice is more deeply personal or more profoundly important than whether to live or die. We have seen terminally ill individuals in great pain begging to have a physician help end their suffering. That should be the right of every Californian, and indeed every person. We urge the Legislature to allow Californians to enjoy the broadest range of choices in death by enacting the Compassionate Choice Act.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Apr 8, 2005
Words:543
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