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November,1997

To Be -- Or Not To Be
by Cliff Walker

While waiting for my turn to see the doctor, I noticed a replica of the Oath of Hippocrates on the wall. People invoke this oath in the assisted suicide debate, so I decided to read it for myself.

I made it through about ten lines when the doctor entered the room. I pointed to the Oath and asked, "Did you really swear to Aesculapius, Jupiter and all the gods and goddesses?" He shook his head, somewhat embarrassed, and said, "I don't remember that far back."

I have since studied the oath with a critical eye and now wonder why anyone would take this document -- or the ideas in it -- seriously. But then, people take the Bible seriously, don't they?

Now that we have won this particular war, now that physician assisted suicide is legal in at least one jurisdiction on this planet, let's not think we can sit back and bask in the glory of progress. There are two formidable fronts that can nullify this progress if we are not careful: the first is the stigma attached to suicide and the second involves technique.

As for stigma, this is why it needs to be a choice. Just as a devout Catholic would be stigmatized by suicide, someone else would be stigmatized by a long, agonizing terminal illness. The bumper sticker that says "If you don't believe in abortion, don't have one" applies here.

Truth is, nobody wants to die. When I studied suicide prevention, we learned that someone contemplating suicide is of two minds; our goal was to contact that part of the person which wants to continue living. But when death is inevitable, the matter of when and where and how becomes an issue for some. Suicide, then, becomes the lesser of two evils. We can't go around tossing people into prison for assisting the suicide of a terminal patient.

As for technique, only one person has made a lifetime study of human death: Dr. Jack Kevorkian. His book "Prescription Medicide" contains many studies relating to how painful certain methods of death are -- particularly executions. So since some people choose suicide, let's come up with the least painful of methods for this already difficult situation.

Kevorkian makes a good case that pills can and do fail to accomplish the intended goal; he goes into detail about this in his book. If I made that choice, I would visit Dr. Kevorkian -- and know that I was in competent hands.

Perhaps the entire medical discipline needs a major retooling -- starting with the Oath of Hippocrates. Would it be too early to suggest that "physician assistance," in this sense, become a specialty?

Graphic Rule
Copyright ©1997 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon