Below in italics, posted with permission, is the excellent letter of a Bennington County physician, Carol Salazar, to our undecided senator, Bob Hartwell.
Dear Senator Hartwell:
I am sorry to hear that you are undecided about the issue of physician assisted suicide. I hope I have misunderstood this.
I have been a practicing general internist for 30 plus years. I have practiced in NY State, Washington State, Idaho, Massachusetts and now in Vermont. I work extensively with the geriatric population, both in the long term care setting and the outpatient setting and in palliative care. I worked on the lower east side of Manhattan at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when young men and women were dying every day of terrible illnesses that we were just learning about. I recently walked with my 40 year old cousin (with 5 young children) and her family through the last 4-5 months of her fight with metastatic cancer. To the very end, her life was a gift to them and all of us . My husband’s best man died of AIDS not long after our wedding. They each chose to live and die with dignity, not by suicide. Life is not clean and tidy, as we all know. Why do we think the dying process should be – after all it is part of life and one of the only certainties in life.
I studied the Oregon public health records. The data is incomplete. The reason for choosing physician assisted suicide was very rarely for pain and suffering. Much of the media and persuasive arguments in favor of PAS focus on the relief of pain and suffering. Why? …Because we can all agree that relief of pain and suffering at the end of life is a goal, but to consider suicide as a “treatment” is a manipulation of words and the meaning of healing. This is seen clearly because the death cannot be reported as a suicide – therefore, technically, we as physicians are falsifying death certificates. How do we then insist that our children learn to be honest.
What message are we sending to our youth? . Suicide rates are increasing in young adults. Every week we read about violent attacks on vulnerable groups. Our youth look to us for what we do, not what we say. Where can a teenager who is being bullied, suffering from an eating disorder or depression, find hope, when her state senators and representatives have stated that it is legal for a person to end their life at the moment of their own choosing. (as long as they have a terminal illness). Every physician knows how inaccurate the estimation of a six month survival can be.
How does a state that vigorously opposes the death penalty make a statement that suicide is a part of the palliative care package. We are fooling ourselves if we do not accept that down the road, as the finances and resources get tighter, the pressure will prevail to extend the “right to suicide” to wider populations. Legalizing physician assisted suicide is a dangerous step for our state, country and world. We are all at our most vulnerable when we suffer, and we all suffer – it is part of our humanity. To say there is no “slippery slope “ is just wrong.
Sincerely, and with hope,
Carol Salazar MD