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Medically assisted aid in dying?

A little over four years ago, my ailing father decided he was ready to, as he phrased it, "leave this vale of tears."

He was 87, and dying from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

A candid conversation with his doctor revealed he had six to 18 months to live, at best.

My father decided to stop any treatments designed to save or prolong his life and began preparing for the end.

He died a short time later and, except for the final hours, he was mentally sharp and completely aware of what was happening.

Our family was heartbroken, but we considered it a blessing that he passed at home, peacefully, with his dignity intact, knowing that he had been able to make important decisions about his fate.

Not every family is that fortunate. Dying is often an extended, painful event that exhausts families physically, emotionally and financially, to the point that death produces as much relief as sadness.

There is, however, an alternative, albeit a controversial one.

This week, Vermont became the fourth state — Oregon, Washington and Montana are the others — to allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication doses to terminally ill patients who have chosen to end their lives.

The legislation allows qualifying patients with an "incurable and irreversible disease" and less than six months to live to choose medically assisted aid in dying.

The law includes a series of safeguards, including consultation with two physicians and counseling on other options, including hospice and palliative care.

Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs for Compassion and Choices, a non-profit organization that supports the law, says the legislation "affirms the soundness of aid in dying as a valid end-of-life option for terminally ill adults, provides clear protection to physicians who provide it, and leaves the regulation of the practice to professional practice standards."

Of course, many are concerned about what amounts to assisted suicide. Conservative Christians believe it's morally wrong and violates the sanctity of human life.

Others worry about a slippery slope whereby euthanasia becomes a little too convenient, as safeguards are relaxed and rules are bent.

And we're still haunted by the ghoulish image of the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

Yes, he got the country thinking about the difficult subject, but hauling around his homemade death machines in a beat-up VW van was more reminiscent of a back-alley abortion than a peaceful, solemn departure.

Legalizing a terminally ill patient's ability to choose death with dignity means, among other things, we won't need the Jack Kevorkians.

A majority of Americans are willing to accept the wishes of a dying patient, even if that wish is for an end of life.

A 2011 Harris Poll found that two-thirds of all adults (70 percent) believe "people who are terminally ill, in great pain and who have no chance of recovery, should have the right to choose to end their lives. This includes a majority, but a smaller percentage (62 percent) of people over 65."

We're told that life is about the choices we make.

Empowering terminally ill patients to make the most significant choice of their lives as death approaches is both respectful and compassionate.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.


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