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Choosing Death
"A Death of Her Choosing" appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of OAM.

Thank you so much for your sensitive and touching article about Oregon's Death with Dignity Law. As someone who has worked with people with life-threatening illnesses for over 15 years, I found the article very accurate in describing the difficult decisions patients make regarding their care. In my experience, hope always plays an important role in decision making, even regarding death. When patients are first diagnosed, they hope for a cure. If their initial treatments don't work, then they hope for a different treatment. Finally, when there are no treatments left, they hope for a death that is free from pain and suffering. For many patients, just knowing they can have control at the end of life is essential to their psychological well-being. And, fortunately, the Oregon law makes this very personal and difficult decision a possibility.
Robert Tufel '81
Director of Patient Services,
National Brain Tumor Foundation
Oakland, Calif.

Having just lost a dear father after a long and sad time of increasing incompetence, degradation, and depression, I found "A Death of Her Choosing" somewhat comforting. This kind of dying is an option that definitely should remain available in Oregon and offered in other states. My condolences to the family of Peggy Sutherland. I'm sorry for their loss, but glad they were able to experience her passing in this humane way.
Stephanie Perkins Schultz '63
Saddle River, N.J.

I was disturbed by the article because although the author tries to be balanced by including some arguments against euthanasia, there was clearly, nonetheless, a tone approving, if not applauding, what Peggy Sutherland did. But what Peggy Sutherland did was a mistake. If she had given life to herself at the beginning, she would have the right to take it away at the end--but she didn't. A few years ago my father died, also of a painful cancer, surrounded by friends and family, blessed by the priest, and finally abandoning his sufferings to the will of God. That is death with dignity.
Jim Radomski '76
San Bernardino, Calif.

Congratulations on breaking an American taboo against discussing death in polite society. I have been a member of the Hemlock Society for years, have supported the Oregon initiative on physician-assisted suicide, and have volunteered in hospice and two nursing homes since 1993. I strongly advocate taking charge and remaining in charge of one's dying and death. While there are some situations in which a patient needs assistance from a physician in dying, as perhaps did Peggy Sutherland, there is usually a better way to accomplish this without requiring that a physician break the law by helping one to die (as is true in all other states). You, yourself, can choose the time and place, and do this easily, painlessly, and lawfully. My wife of more than 60 years, Mim Lemmon Tallmadge '39, died a beautiful death, one that served as an example to her family. She took the full five months of hospice care. Finally, it was becoming painful for her to be turned in bed. She asked me, "What can I do?" I told her that she could stop eating and drinking. She did. Four days later at 5 a.m., I went into her room, gave her my love, and told her that she was free to die. Ten minutes later Mim had departed. Hospice knows that when the body is shutting down, feeding is harmful to it. They expect the patient to refuse food toward the end, and they support the patient's desire with palliative care. Declining food andwater when the body is in the final stages of an illness is an easy and painless death. It is also best accomplished under home care. It is illegal for hospitals and nursing homes to feed you against your will, but they will do so unless your living will provides against intubation, and unless your family supports you. During Mim's dying, I also learned that if a satisfactory life closure were to take place, the family needed the opportunity to give an amount of care to satisfy their emotional and mental needs. Therefore, it is necessary for the patient having a choice not to choose to exit this life too soon.
Bill Tallmadge '40, MM '46
Berea, K.Y.

"A Death of Her Choosing"--the title itself spotlights the driving presupposition of death with dignity proponents: "My life belongs to me, and I therefore have a right to determine its end." This view is embedded in a secularized religion, complete with its cadre of prophets and priests, that asserts radical and individual autonomy. In so doing, it undermines a crucial pillar of human dignity at the center of Western civilization--that we are created by God, "in his image." Our lives are sacred precisely because they do not belong to us. We fought slavery for the same reason, and we should not help people to die any more than we would help them to sell themselves into slavery. Our efforts to alleviate suffering compassionately will thrive only when they are firmly rooted in the divinely given sanctity of life from conception through natural death. Physician-assisted suicide is indeed a slippery slope: The right to die will become the duty to die, and ultimately the duty to kill.
Andrew H. Selle '73
Essex Junction, Vt.


In response to the article "A Death of Her Choosing" in the summer issue of Oberlin Alumni Magazine, I would like to affirm that every human life has dignity. This dignity is not diminished when a person is suffering; rather, the value of life is greatest when it appears weakest. Our laws should protect those who are most vulnerable, and uphold their dignity when they might be tempted to question it themselves. Only then will we be a truly compassionate society.
Angela M. Tardiff '95
Lorain, Ohio

Your article on physician-assisted suicide arouses some difficult questions. Here in Oregon, when the issue came to a vote, people talked about potential sources of abuse such as greedy heirs, cost-cutting HMOs, etc. But I wonder if an even uglier issue lurks behind all this.
Most people asking for physician-assisted suicide are likely to be cancer victims. Often enough, their suffering is as much due to the treatment as to the disease itself. How much of the medical community's willingness to accept physician-assisted suicide stems from a desire to cover up their own mistakes? Dead men tell no tales. And file no lawsuits.
After years of research on mortality statistics, I have yet to find any evidence for any positive effect of any medical treatment on any disease condition. Medical science seems to do fine at repair of traumatic injury, but even much-touted antibiotics did nothing to accelerate the disappearance of contagious disease, which had already been decreasing since before the 20th century, thanks to the germ theory of disease and the development of related preventative practices such as asepsis. There does seem to be an increase in immune system dysfunction and immune system cancers associated with overuse of antibiotics, however, leading to higher AIDS rates in countries with lax agricultural antibiotics laws--of which the U.S. is one. By contrast, preventative medical practices, such as iodized salt and low cholesterol diets, have sent mortality rates plunging.
The medical community has traditionally relied on the dictum of "reasonable and common practice" to justify a "no lawsuits" approach--but what happens when common practice itself is at fault? In a world where violence at abortion clinics is already routine, what kind of public response can we expect if physician-assisted suicide becomes commonplace?
Peter D. Hays '73
Eugene, Ore.

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