Exit This Way

Denver lies dead center in the right-to-die debate.


Sandy Bush plans to make his mark before he goes.

Last fall, he even lobbied Governor Bill Owens's staff on behalf of a bill that would protect physicians who prescribe pain medication for the terminally ill from manslaughter charges, telling staffers that morphine made him comfortable and improved his quality of life.

 
 
Having the pills that could end his life has helped 
Sandy Bush enjoy the time he has left.
Anthony Camera
Having the pills that could end his life has helped Sandy Bush enjoy the time he has left.

Dick VandenBergh, president of the Denver chapter of Compassion & Choices, organized a group of physicians and citizens to get the legislation introduced. The move was a preemptive one, he says, since no manslaughter case has ever been filed against a Colorado doctor in such a situation. But it was also designed to remove pressure from physicians, who might err on the side of prescribing too little medication without it, VandenBergh adds. And it might even deter civil lawsuits.

"As we educated the legislators, there was a growing consensus that this was the right thing to do, and it ended up not being controversial, as we had anticipated it would be at the beginning," says state senator Suzanne Williams, who sponsored the measure. "It did not give permission for assisted suicide, and once people understood that it did not give permission for assisted suicide and that it's a right to relieve pain, they approved it."

The bill, which passed both houses and Governor Owens's desk, goes into effect July 1.

By enacting this type of palliative-care legislation, Williams suggests that there will be no need to pursue assisted-suicide legislation, such as the law in force in Oregon.

But this state's right-to-die movement's leaders disagree. Compassion & Choices isn't lobbying Colorado legislators for a prescription death law now simply because the political climate isn't right, its leaders say. But the time will come.

"The United States doesn't want to talk about death," says Marsha Temple, executive director of Compassion & Choices. And she should know, because she's trying to get the national dialogue going from her Denver office.

The organization now has about 50,000 members and donors throughout the country. There are efforts under way for Oregon-style right-to-die laws in California and Vermont, and there's talk of it again in Washington.

"It is your right to choose at the end of your life," Temple says, "and the government or the religious right shouldn't interfere. We are a country of incredible freedoms; this should be one of the biggest freedoms we're allowed, and that's not the case. People shouldn't have the government or the churches at their bedside unless they want it."

On that, the Final Exit Network and Compassion & Choices agree. But the two organizations still differ on whether anyone who is ill should have the choice to end his life. If someone who is not terminal contacts Compassion & Choices, for example, he will be referred to an organization that works with the specific disease he's suffering from.

The Final Exit Network remains willing to discuss the possibilities for making that final exit.

"We just don't know their protocols or criteria," says Temple. "When you refer people, that's a huge responsibility. If something happens to those people, you could be liable. I don't think it hurts our mission at all. Other organizations believe in the right to die, and that helps. But we have different programs and a different way of addressing the issue."

Compassion & Choices no longer recommends Humphry's book, which it considers outdated. Instead, it provide its own set of instructions.

But Final Exit still sells well. Almost fifteen years after its first publication, it continues to move at least 10,000 copies a year.

"The whole right-to-die movement, we're chugging along, but the political climate is not in our favor," Humphry says. "Currently, I would say that the movement in America is as strong as ever in terms of people and money and mailing lists and support, but it's biding its time until there's a swing of the pendulum toward more liberal attitudes toward the right to die."


In addition to the new RV, Sandy and Joann have bought a small dog so that Joann will have a companion once Sandy dies. However and whenever he dies.

They named the dog Sandy.

For decades, they each carried half of a ripped dollar in their wallets. Now those halves are in the same frame.

Together.

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