by | Oct 9, 2005 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

There’s an expression in boxing: “Every fighter has a plan – until he gets hit.” From what I’ve seen in hospitals and funeral parlors, it holds true for the end-of-life debate as well.

People think they have a plan for death. It may be moral, practical or religious. But when it is their own death – or a family member’s – things change. The agony of a terminal illness or the long suffering of loved ones leads to grief – and sometimes decisions – that were previously unimaginable.

In 1994, the people of Oregon passed a right-to-die law. It was – and remains – pretty specific. Two doctors must agree that the patient likely will die within six months of “an incurable and irreversible disease.” They must speak separately with the patient and determine a sound mind is making this decision.

The patient must request to die verbally and in writing, with two witnesses. Alternatives – such as pain management – must be offered. The patient must be able to swallow drugs on his or her own – no doctor shots.

And – unlike the Terri Schiavo case – the decision can be made only by the patient.

That’s a lot of hurdles to leap. Which may be why, reports show, in its first seven years, only 208 people, fewer than 30 a year, have used the Oregon law to end their lives.

That is hardly a Jonestown rush to the other side.

A federal case

Still, John Ashcroft, when he became attorney general, went after this law with the zeal of a prophet. He announced that, under the Controlled Substances Act, he could prosecute any doctors who prescribed the lethal drugs, as if they were dope pushers on a street corner.

It was a dodge, and most people knew it.

The Controlled Substances Act, passed in 1970, was meant to fight drug abuse. It deals with heroin and ecstasy and illegal drug trafficking. It was not enacted to fight 90-year-old cancer patients.

But to Ashcroft, who makes no secret of his religious fervor, laws apparently are allowed to be twisted if the result, to him, is a higher moral code. So he went after the Oregon law, and even though he is now out of the attorney general’s office, the debate has gone to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments last week.

And now, like the dying, we wait.

The role of religion

Ending someone’s suffering may seem artificial, but then, so is prolonging it with machines. In days gone by, people died much younger and much quicker. Modern medicine can stretch both life and decay.

But anyone who has heard an aged mother yelping in pain or a dying husband begging to be “let go” knows the agony of those moments, and the strong urge to relieve them.

Even my beloved professor, Morrie Schwartz, whose brave fight against ALS has become well known, confided in me that if he couldn’t talk, smile, express his love or recognize his family, he wouldn’t want to live. “It’s not me anymore,” he said.

Now, my religion forbids suicide. So that’s what I’ve been taught. I guess the difference between Ashcroft and me is that I don’t feel the right to tell other people what to do. Sure, many believe God doesn’t want them to take this step. Then don’t.

But if God doesn’t want it, then God will deal with it. I heard someone claim that Oregonians who end their lives this way “are going to hell.”

Well, if they are, that sounds like punishment enough. We don’t need to be throwing doctors in jail. This is not some slippery slope. If it were, we’d see a lot more than 208 people over seven years, and a lot more than one state adopting this statute.

The truth is, laws are written in plush offices under bright lights. Lying in a deathbed, the light changes. And sometimes, as with a hit fighter, so does the plan.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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