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Proposition 106 discussed at Denver Theology on Tap

10/21/2016 | Comments

(Ed. Note: Story received too late for inclusion in the print edition of the Oct. 21, 2016 issue of the Colorado Catholic Herald.)

DENVER – Susan Selner-Wright, a philosophy professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, told a crowd of more than 150 people at a recent Theology on Tap event that she didn’t have to dig far to find the reasons Proposition 106, a measure on this November’s ballot seeking to legalize doctor-assisted suicide, should not be passed.

She detailed how Ann Humphry, one of the founders of the original Hemlock Society (now called Compassion & Choices, which has been airing television commercials urging voters to pass Proposition 106 in Colorado) participated directly in the death of her mother in 1986 by suffocating her when she started to choke on the pills that were supposed to end her life.

Five years later, Humphry killed herself but detailed on videotape what had happened.

According to the New York Times, Selner-Wright said, Humphry was with her mother while her husband Derek was with her father in another room. Her parents both wanted to die due to their deteriorating conditions. “I walked away from that house thinking, ‘We are both murderers,’” Humphry said on the video.

Selner-Wright said that Humphry’s experience was not uncommon, since statistics say that in one in five cases of physician-assisted suicide in the Netherlands, the suicide does not go as planned.

“If one of the founders of the Hemlock Society — which makes a living explaining how to assist in suicide — if one of the founders has to actually kill the person whose suicide she’s witnessing, how many other people are going to find themselves in that same situation,” Selner-Wright said. “They’re not going to be witnesses to a situation, they’re actually going to be carrying it out. In one of five situations that’s what will happen.”

Selner-Wright also said that, in states where physician-assisted suicide is legal, the people who report complications have to do so by going to the media, since no agency is assigned to monitor reporting of the things that go wrong.

In many versions of the bill, which was shot down by lawmakers twice the past two years at the Colorado General Assembly, doctors would be forced to list a terminal illness as the cause of death on a death certificate rather than suicide. However, numerous doctors have testified that estimates of how long people have to live are often wrong, and a disease that is called terminal may in fact not be.

“Physicians can’t predict the future, there’s just no way to predict the future,” Selner-Wright said. “There’s clear potential for abuse of the elderly and the disabled.”

The Denver Post, which supported former versions of the bill, recently came out against Proposition 106.

Attendee and hospice physician Valerie Devanney, 31, who works in Denver, said she opposes Proposition 106 because support for it stems from the general public’s lack of education on end-of-life decisions.

“A big part of it stems from a lack of knowledge about hospice and the things we are already capable of doing to help people die with dignity,” Devanney said. “The pills are unnecessary. I also think that its roots lie in the human’s desire to have control, and when faced with terminal diseases like cancer, the patients don’t like that feeling like they’ve lost control over their lives and their health, so this proposition gives people this control. It’s ok to give up control, because ultimately it’s God who is in control.”

Heather Pouliot, 38, who has served in the Navy and recently converted to Catholicism, spoke after Selner-Wright about the legislation’s possible impact to her fellow veterans.

“The reasons I do not support this particular piece of legislation include that it will make it far easier for my fellow disabled veterans to give up in their recovery from traumatic experiences,” Pouliot said. “The value of their lives is diminished underneath the veneer of ‘compassionate care.’ It is enough that the suicide rate among veterans is very high, 22 a day on average, and this selfish, money-saving proposal may appeal to suffering veterans as an easy way out.”

A study in Oregon showed one in four who sought assisted-suicide were clinically depressed, yet another study showed only three percent were referred for psychological evaluation or counseling before receiving their prescriptions.

Selner-Wright said under the proposition, the person seeking death gets a prescription for 100 pills, which have to be dissolved and consumed very quickly before the person loses consciousness. In the Netherlands, a doctor is present and can administer euthanasia if the pills don’t work.

“In our case there wouldn’t be any doctor,” she said. “It’s you and (your family).”

In 20 percent of cases, she said, “They took too long to die, or they never went into a coma, or they went into a coma and woke up or they couldn’t get the medications down and at some point started vomiting them back up. That’s 20 percent of the time that has happened. Imagine you’ve lit all these candles and all the people you’ve invited to come witness your peaceful party and 20 percent of the time something’s going to go wrong.”

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