My Turn

Opinion: Support legislation that provides compassion in dying

By Reverend Gary Kowalski, Unitarian Congregation of Taos
Posted 2/21/19

Peggy, at the age of 78, was a vibrant member of my church known for her love of gardening and her feisty opinions right up to the moment she was diagnosed with ALS. Within weeks, this individual …

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My Turn

Opinion: Support legislation that provides compassion in dying

Posted

Peggy, at the age of 78, was a vibrant member of my church known for her love of gardening and her feisty opinions right up to the moment she was diagnosed with ALS. Within weeks, this individual who'd recently traveled by bus to New York City to march with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom could no longer move her legs, and the rapidly spreading paralysis meant she would soon lose her ability to speak or swallow, then slowly suffocate when her diaphragm could no longer draw air into her lungs. Facing the certainty of a prolonged and horrifying death, Peggy made the brave decision, together with her loving family, to stop food and hydration and hasten her own demise. She expressed the wish, while she could still converse, that there was an easier way than dying of thirst, which even the best palliative care could not entirely ameliorate.

Miriam was another of my older congregants, diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer. During early tests, a freak accident involving oxygen in the operating room had caused Miriam's face to catch fire briefly, leaving her with a morbid fear of more surgery, but with a sure knowledge that the growing tumor inside her head would eventually eat away her memory and personality, leaving her an empty shell, before her physical death. It wasn't the way she wanted to say goodbye to her kids or friends and, like Peggy, Miriam decided to stop hydration, dying slowly over the course of several days. Like Peggy, Miriam too would have preferred to have other options and choices at the end of life.

Offering those choices is the aim of a bill under consideration by the New Mexico State Legislature, House Bill 90, that would give terminally ill patients with less than six months to live an opportunity to end their own suffering painlessly. The bill provides safeguards. Two health care professionals, including a physician, must certify the patient as mentally competent and incurably ill. The patient's request must be written and impartially witnessed. The lethal drugs must be administered by the patient's own hand. In the seven states and the District of Columbia that have passed assisted-dying legislation, there have been no documented abuses, to my knowledge.

Moreover, those states have found that very few individuals actually choose to end their own lives, for the simple fact that most people with any hope for a decent quality of existence want desperately to live. Only the small handful like Peggy and Miriam, faced with the most dire and dreadful prospects, take the route of self-deliverance. But having the law on the books in places like Vermont, Washington and Oregon has given peace of mind to countless souls who know that, if the worst befalls, they do have the option of a dignified death that allows them to exercise their own personal autonomy until the very end.

As a pastor and person of faith, I might not always agree with the decisions made by members of my church. Catholics, Jews, Protestants of varying denominations and others have differing views on this issue. But I do respect each person's freedom of conscience to determine their own life-or-death decisions until the final breath. Now it is up to the New Mexico Senate to pass its own version of House Bill 90 and for our new governor to sign this bill into law.

This is not a bill for assisted suicide. It a bill of reprieve for those sentenced to suffer fates worse than death, enabling them to reclaim control of their own destinies, until the last goodbye.

Reverend Gary Kowalski is a Santa Fe resident and a minister at Unitarian Congregation of Taos.

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