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Death With Dignity movement

By Katie Deska
News staff
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09/27/2016 - Since the late pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian became famous, or infamous, depending on the point of view, in the 1990s for helping ill patients with doctor-assisted suicide, the issue of whether a terminally ill person has the right to determine when and how to end their life has been debated in public arenas and private living rooms. Is it an individual's right to die, or is it euthanasia? For most of us, there's no simple or easy answer.

"(My aunt's) greatest fear was not dying, but that they were not going to let her," said Linda Van Zandt, the niece of a California woman who, in the midst of suffering with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease – chose to terminate her life, self-administering a bitter cocktail of physician-prescribed medication – an option provided by California's End of Life Option Act, which went into effect this June.

Colloquially called the Death With Dignity Act, qualified terminally ill patients in California, Oregon, Washington, and Vermont are offered the option to consume a lethal dose of doctor-prescribed medication, yet the person's death isn't reported as suicide, assisted suicide, homicide or drug overdose. The hitch is that, at the time of consumption, the patient is required to physically ingest the drugs without help. In return, the death certificate lists the cause of death as the patient's terminal illness.

This August, Michigan Representatives Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) and Tom Cochran (D-Mason) introduced House Bill 5802, legislation to establish a similar law in Michigan, which would provide mentally stable, terminally ill adults with the legal means to access a hefty dose of life-ending medication.

"Now that the conversation is happening across the country, we thought it was a good time to start it in Michigan," Singh said in mid-September. "There are about 20 days of the session, so there's not many committee meetings at all. My thought is this (bill) won't be taken up in this session. It will be an opportunity for different organizations to review the bills and give their thoughts, and, we will reintroduce this in January 2017, in the new session."

Also sponsored by Singh and Cochran, is House Bill 5803, which would establish as a felony punishment, with a maximum 20-year prison sentence, for coercing a person to utilize Michigan's would-be Death with Dignity Act. The bill would also criminalize falsifying a patient's request or destroying the written request.

"What I see happening is that there are people with a terminal illness, in a lot of pain and they don't have all the options available to them," Singh said. "The bills are very specific. You have to have a terminal illness. You have to have independent doctors acknowledge you're a competent individual, and that you have a terminal illness with less than six months to live. Then you can make the decision to use medication to end your life.

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