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In passing the legislation known as Measure 16 in the state of Oregon, were there deceptions involved? Did the media play along with proponents of assisted suicide, denying media coverage to opposing viewpoints? What did proponents do immediately after passage of Measure 16? This paper will seek to satisfy these questions and others.
The "centerpiece" of the campaign to pass Measure 16 was a 60-second television ad featuring Patty A. Rosen (head of the Bend, OR chapter of the Hemlock Society and a former nurse practitioner). In it, Rosen urged the public to "Vote yes on 16" and gave an emotional personal testimonial to the illusion of slipping away peacefully after taking pills:
"I am a criminal. My 25-year-old daughter, Jody, was dying of bone cancer. The pain was so great that she couldn't bear to be touched, and drugs didn't help. Jody had a few weeks to live when she decided she wanted to end her life. But it wasn't legally possible. So I broke the law and got her the pills necessary. And as she slipped peacefully away, I climbed into her bed and I took her in my arms [Rosen's voice cracks with emotion] for the first time in months...." (1)
A statement signed by Rosen also appeared in the Oregon Voters' guide, distributed just prior to the vote on Measure 16: "She [Rosen's daughter] took the necessary medication herself and I was there when she fell asleep for the last time." (2) But it turned out that Rosen's account was different than an earlier version of this "true story" which was so effective in promoting a "pills only" measure to the voters. (3) Two years earlier, during the campaign for California's ballot initiative -- which allowed for both pills and a lethal injection -- Patty Rosen, then Patty Fallon, told a far different version of her daughter's death:
"So she went to sleep. I didn't know about plastic bags. I wish I had. Because...It seemed to be back firing. And I was fortunate enough at the very last to be able to hit a vein right.... [B]efore I could do that, the one son came into the room.... took his hands and held her veins for me.... I said, 'Oh God, she's startin' to breathe again.' And [the other son] said, 'I'll take a pillow.
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But, according to this version, the pillow wasn't used. The lethal injection worked. Ms. Rosen recounted another (similar, but aesthetically sanitized) version in a "Personal Declaration" filed as part of an amicus curiae brief in the recent cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. (5) Of course, Rosen could not publicly use the injection versions during the Oregon campaign since the lethal injection was not part of the measure. However, at a small meeting in October 1994, she did acknowledge that, once the measure was passed and in effect, proponents planned to challenge the prescription-only restriction. (6)
And yes, immediately after Measure16's passage (before the legal challenges that delayed its implementation began), the push to expand the pills-only provision to include the lethal injection began. In a letter to the New York Times, Hemlock's co-founder Derek Humphry wrote that the Oregon law "could be disastrous" since it didn't permit the lethal injection. Humphry pointed to a study in the Netherlands showing that pills alone often failed, making it necessary for the doctor to give a lethal injection "because the oral drugs were causing protracted suffering to the patient, the family and himself." (7) Humphry concluded, "The only two 100 percent ways of accelerated dying are the lethal injection of barbiturates and curare or donning a plastic bag [after taking pills]." (8)
It is that reality -- that pills don't work to bring about a peaceful death -- that had been hidden from Oregon voters in 1994. The media was not open to publicizing all aspects of the debate. Yet, as has been shown with Rosen, it is often the "peaceful pill" story that is told by assisted suicide advocates -- until they think the truth is no longer a hindrance to their agenda.
As with Rosen, Humphry has had personal experience in assisting suicides -- those of his first wife and both of his second wife's parents. In each case, he had claimed that pills were effective, but his second wife claims that Humphry actually smothered his first wife. (9) Further, it is known that his mother-in-law suffocated after a plastic bag was put over her head. (10) Similar revelations have come out in other cases that originally were reported as being peaceful deaths using pills. For example, George Delury, a New York man who had portrayed himself as a loving husband who "helped" his wife die by giving her pills, now admits that, after giving her a drug laced drink, he put two plastic bags over her head, secured them with a ribbon around her neck, and watched as her breathing slowly stopped. (11) Delury has commented on the Oregon law. He says he supports it, but that people need to be aware that "part of the process is having a plastic bag." (12)
With the revelations about the failed pill overdoses becoming the focus of Measure 16 repeal efforts, assisted suicide supporters are scrambling to explain away the brutal realities. Some, like Peter Goodwin, a Portland family practitioner and the leading medical spokesman for Measure 16, claims that "when physicians are prescribing knowledgeably, we won't need a plastic bag at all." (13) Others claim that the plastic bag cases illustrate the need for Measure 16 because, with it, doctors could tell people to wait longer for the pills to work. (14)
In an attempt to allay fears of the pill disasters, some supporters of Measure 16 have pointed to a 1996 article co-authored by Compassion in Dying medical consultant Thomas Preston, M.D., and Unitarian minister and former Compassion in Dying executive director Ralph Mero. Preston and Mero claim that, during Compassion in Dying's first 13 months of operation, all but one of the patient deaths by means of pills took place within 10 hours. (15)
But there are major questions about the credibility of the Preston-Mero article. In 1995, the two Compassion in Dying officials had claimed that no death by pills, which occurred within the group's first 13 months, had taken longer than 8 hours (16) -- a two hour discrepancy with their later article.
They have both been intimately involved in Compassion in Dying's activities. To admit that a lethal injection or a plastic bag was used to bring about death would implicate them not only in assisted suicide, but in murder. Additionally, the "recipe" (17) that they claim is used for Compassion in Dying assisted deaths is virtually identical to that which is provided by Derek Humphry, yet Humphry clearly states that pills alone won't do the job.
(As noted previously, Humphry has said pills alone would be a disaster and, during the month that Measure 16 passed, he published yet another set of directions on how to use the plastic bag in combination with pills. He wrote, "The best size is about 19 inches by 23 inches, which can be purchased in the 'Foils and Wraps' aisle of a supermarket. Look for the label that says 'Oven bags' or 'Turkey bags.'") (18)
And there is, and should be, great skepticism concerning reassurances that physician involvement in death by pills would prevent the necessity of "finishing the job" with a lethal injection or a plastic bag. In fact, in an article that immediately follows Preston and Mero's, Dutch physician and euthanasia advocate Gerrit K. Kimsma makes it unmistakably clear that Dutch doctors (who have had years of experience with physician assisted death) recognize fully the ineffective and troubling nature of oral medications being used to induce death. (19)
1.) "Analyzing the Ads," Oregonian, Oct. 12, 1994.
2.) Official 1994 General Election Voters' Pamphlet, Argument in Favor of Measure 16, p. 127. (emphasis added)
3.) Over the years there have been many discrepancies in the story that Patty Rosen has told of her daughter's death. These discrepancies are not limited to the means of death (pills or injection). There are also differing versions of the length of time between Jody's diagnosis and her death, of Jody's own work in the field of health care, of the type and quality of care Jody recieved during her illness, of whether Jody did or did not recieve hospice care, of the length of time between Jody's request for death and her actual death, ect. The only thing that is known for certain is that her death certificate states that 26-year-old Jody Lynn Grape died on Grim Avenue in San Diego on October 30, 1986, that her cause of death was listed as metastasized thyroid cancer and her attending physician was Dr. William Schwartz (who was an obstetrician/gynecologist, not a cancer specialist). [Jody Grape's death certificate]
4.) Transcript of panel discussion, "Grief, Guilt, and Assisted Suicide," held on Sept. 25, 1992 at the Hemlock Society's 6th National Conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Long Beach, CA.
5.) Amicus Curiae Brief of Surviving Family Members in Support of Physician-Assisted Dying in Support of Respondents, Washington v. Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill, (U.S. Supreme Court, October term 1996. Nos. 96-110 & 95-1858). ROsen's Declaration is dated Nov. 2, 1996.
6.) Acknowledgement of the plan to seek later approval for the lethal injection was made by Patty Rosen at an October 24, 1994 meeting of the Oregon Nurses Association. This has been verified by the author with a person in attendance at the meeting.
7.) "Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law Gives No Sure Comfort in Dying," Letter to the Editor by Derek Humphry, New York TImes, Dec. 3, 1994.
9.) See: Marker, Deadly Compassion, Wm Morrow & Co. (1993). Humphry denies the allegation, saying he was ready to smother her, but it wasn't necessary.
11.) Seth Gitell, "Delury Put Bag Over Lebov's Head During Course of 'Assisted Suicide,'" Forward, May 9, 1997, p. 1; Thomas Maier, "Suicide 'Help' Husband: I put the plastic bag over her head,"Newsday, June 18, 1997; Thomas Maier, "State Probes Suicide Memoir: Attorney general to test book's profits under Son of Sam law," Newsday, June 19, 1997; Dateline NBC, June 30, 1997.
12.) Mark O'Keefe, E-mail note roils suicide debate," Sunday Oregonian, June 29, 1997, p. A1..
13.) Mark O'Keefe, "House takes up assisted suicide, Oregonian, May 13, 1997.
14.) Jeff Mapes, "Suicide law ruling may shake up fall vote," Oregonian, June 16, 1997.
15.) Preston and Mero, "Observations Concerning Terminally Ill Patients Who Choose Suicide," in Battin and Lipman, eds. Drug Use in Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, Pharmaceutical Products Press (1996), p. 187.
16.) "Assisted death can be peaceful if right steps taken," Letter to the editor from Thomas Preston and Ralph Mero, American Medical News, April 3, 1995.
17.) Compassion in Dying's "recipe" includes the use of anti-nausea tables, beta blockers, and barbiturates, taken in sweetened applesauce.
18.) Derek Humphry responding to letters in his "ERGO! Newsletter," Nov. 1994, p. 6. Humphry's advice gives rise to the macabre scenario of the shopper who picks up her death kit at the supermarket -- pills at the pharmacy section, plastic bags in the foils and wraps section and applesauce in the canned fruit section -- giving a new twist to "one stop shopping" -- "last stop shopping.".
19.) Gerrit K. Kimsma, "Drug Use in Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia," in Battin and Lipman, eds. Drug Use in Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, Pharmaceutical Products Press (1996), pp. 193-210.