Legislators hear passionate pleas for and against assisted suicide

By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Longtime civil rights activist John Jay Hooker pleaded before a state Senate committee on Tuesday for a bill to allow physician-assisted suicide.

The 84-year-old former Democratic nominee for governor has terminal cancer. He showed up at the meeting of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee in a wheelchair and at times struggled to catch his breath. But he spoke passionately about the issue, calling it “the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

Hooker said he first came to the Capitol 57 years ago as a young lawyer to prosecute a judge.

“I was here then on behalf of justice. I’m here now on behalf of mercy,” he said.

Political luminaries including former Gov. Winfield Dunn and former Speaker of the House Jimmy Naifeh attended the committee hearing, where Hooker presented physician-assisted suicide as a constitutional right.

“If we have the power to seek happiness, guaranteed by our own constitution, then we have the power to take our own lives when they become no longer tolerable,” he said.

Opponents were equally passionate, warning that allowing doctors to prescribe terminally ill patients lethal doses of pills could lead to abuse by caregivers who no longer want to take care of ailing relatives.

Josue Rodriguez is a community organizer with the Memphis Center for Independent Living. He was in an electric wheelchair and said he has cerebral palsy and vision problems.

He testified that the bill plays into the dangerous idea that death is preferable to being dependent on others for care. He argued that there are better ways to deal with pain than taking your life.

“Alleviating suffering is different from eliminating the sufferer,” he said.

Currently, Oregon, Washington and Vermont have laws allowing physician-assisted suicide. Lawmakers promised to take up the Tennessee bill when the legislature reconvenes in January.

Further, from The Tennessean:

“It’s one of those issues that’s very difficult,” said state Sen. Rusty Crowe, chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

“I think all of us want the same thing. We want people who are in that situation to die comfortably and to die with dignity. How it’s done? That’s a different thing. I don’t know.”

…The first state to legalize physician-assisted death was Oregon in 1997, and the first doctor to prescribe such medication was Dr. Pete Reagan.

Reagan — who now works for Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group that supports physician-assisted death — told lawmakers in Nashville on Tuesday that in the rare cases when assisted death is used in Oregon, it is often used in conjunction with hospice or other end-of-life treatments.

The concept of how one balances treating pain at the end of life and allowing someone to end their pain by ending their life drove much of the debate. Reagan argued the law allowed him to help patients he knew were suffering and were going to die regardless of the medication.

But state Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, questioned Reagan over what he considered to be “gray area.”

Although there are terminal patients, Briggs, who is a physician, thought there could be some debate or confusion on the law. What might happen with patients who may be disabled or suffering but who could still live for a considerable time with the right treatment, Briggs said.

“A lot of this is done already on people who are truly terminally ill. It’s done in hospice situations, and it’s done by physicians who, absolutely, the primary concern is to make a person not suffer,” Briggs said, adding he thinks there have been significant advances in hospice care since Oregon passed its law.

“I don’t think we need to codify or legitimize physician-assisted suicide.”