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Doctors, Lawyers, Philosophers Discuss ‘Assisting’ Suicide

April 3, 1987

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) _ The Hemlock Society says doctors should be allowed to give lethal injections to terminally ill patients who want to die, and the 16,000-member group hopes to put the issue before California voters next year.

Some of the 150 doctors, lawyers, philosophers, social workers and therapists at a conference on assisting suicide at the Stanford University Medical School on Thursday agreed with the Hemlock Society.

Many, however, did not.

″The arguments are overwhelmingly persuasive that it should not occur,″ said James Bopp Jr., president of the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled, Inc., in Terre Haute, Ind., one of the sponsors of the conference.

″Yet we’re dangerously close to legalizing assisting suicide,″ he said.

More than 10 states have court decisions allowing starvation-dehydration death for non-terminal patients, including those in comas or with brain damage, Bopp said.

″Once you decide it’s perfectly legal for somebody to die by starvation- dehy dration,″ he said, ″then you have the argument that comes hand in hand with that - ‘Isn’t it more humane to kill them by lethal injection?’ In a certain perverted sense that is true, but it is perverted.″

Only courts in Holland, he said, have allowed lethal injections by doctors within certain guidelines. Unofficial reports say as many as one-fifth of all deaths there are now by lethal injection, he added.

George Curtis Garbesi, law professor at Loyola University in Los Angeles and counsel to the Hemlock Society, argued that people have a right to commit suicide.

Doctors should be permitted to help a patient expected to die within six months by assisting his or her suicide to escape painful illness or injury, Garbesi said.

The society, which takes its name from the poisonous plant Socrates used to commit suicide, is supporting a referendum by another Los Angeles-based group, Americans Against Human Suffering, and hopes to put it on the state ballot in the June 1988 elections.

Dr. Count Gibson, chairman of the Department of Family, Community and Preventive Medicine at Stanford, said the purpose of the three-day conference is to explore the legal, medical and ethical issues of allowing or requiring doctors to assist in suicide.

″Some groups are advocating changes in the law that would allow the health professions to deliberately shorten the lives of patients with severe illness,″ he said. ″Other people believe that this would be a first step toward legalizing the elimination of ‘useless’ members of society.″

Some of the topics addressed at the conference are how to define suicide, trends in laws governing assisted suicide, the impact of assisted suicide on family relations and on medical and psychiatric practice, and alternatives to suicide for the terminally ill.

One of the major areas of interest was the impact of sanctioned assisted suicide on minorities, older people, teen-agers and people with disabilities.

″We’re talking about a population of dependent people who, by age, condition or disease have been rendered vulnerable,″ Bopp said. ″Even though they are less than perfect and they have varying degrees of lower functioning because of, say, brain damage, their lives still have inherent value. We should not select out categories of people and say it’s all right to kill them.″

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