A new fight for good death

Kathryn Tucker

Kathryn Tucker

Christie White and Dan Swangard are fighting to live – and also fighting for their right to die: peacefully, at home, surrounded by those they love.

Kathryn Tucker and Nico van Aelstyn are now taking that fight to the Superior Court of the State of California; and it will be a fight worth watching.

Tucker, a distinguished attorney now serving as the executive director of the Disability Rights Legal Center, has already led a number of such battles for peace at life’s end, including defense of the Oregon Death With Dignity Act several times in the early years of that now 18-year-long success story. van Aelstyn has a similarly notable record and an award-winning history of pro bono work on end-of-life issues. Many supporters of end-of-life choice, including this writer, are optimistic about the potential outcome.

But court battles aren’t settled overnight, and White and Swangard know they may not have a lot of time left.

Christie White

Christie White

“My mother will tell you,” White remarked during the press conference announcing the lawsuit, “that from the time I took my first steps I wanted to be in control. I want to be in control. I am adamant about not wanting to die in a hospital, but at home, surrounded by my family. I want to be able to gather my loved ones and meet my death with some dignity and peace of mind.”

Since first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and then acute myeloid leukemia or AML Leukemia more than five years ago, White has undergone chemotherapies, radiation therapy and a bone marrow transplant. Because of those prior interventions, her medical options would be severely limited should her leukemia recur.

Dan Swangard, MD was diagnosed with tumor of the pancreas, with metastatic disease to the liver, and had major surgery in 2013. “Not to state the obvious,” he told the press, “but dying is something we all do. It can be loud, quiet, filled with anxiety, pain and suffering, at home or on the road. It can also be peaceful, filled with connections to people we love the most – if planned.”

Swangard has practiced medicine for 22 years. He has also served as a volunteer with Zen Hospice and at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, experiences that add to his own understanding of what a good death can be.

This lawsuit is about the possibility of a good death for everyone in California. Christie White and Dan Swangard are two good Californians who deserve such an option.

 

Montana court affirms aid in dying

Montana has become the third U.S. state to give terminally ill adults the right to choose aid in dying. The decision, which came from the State Supreme Court on New Year’s Eve, 2009, was handed down by the highest body for state issues and thus cannot be appealed. The other two states honoring a patient’s wish to choose aid in dying are Oregon, which has successfully maintained its Death with Dignity legislation for more than a decade, and Washington, which passed a similar law last year.

The Montana ruling came too late for one plaintiff.

Roberta King, of Missoula, the daughter of plaintiff Bob Baxter, said, “My father died without the peace and dignity he so dearly wanted for himself and others. He feared when he filed this lawsuit that he would not live long enough to benefit from it. I’m sure he would be deeply gratified that other terminally ill Montanans will have the choice and comfort that aid in dying affords them.”

The Montana case was backed by Compassion and Choices, with C&C Legal Director Kathryn Tucker serving as co-counsel to the plaintiffs/respondents. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of Compassion and Choices’ Northern California chapter.) The decision gave Tucker a major boost for her New Year’s celebrations. She was quoted on New Year’s Day as saying,

Montanans trapped in an unbearable dying process deserve, and will now have, this end-of-life choice. This is the first state high court to find protection of this choice, and makes clear that in Montana, patients are able to make this choice and physicians can provide this care without risking sanction.”

Others, including medical professionals and critically ill patients who invested long hours in seeking the new ruling, were equally gratified.

Dr. Stephen Speckart, a Missoula cancer specialist and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said, “This decision affirms that a terminal patient’s fundamental right to self-determination will guide end-of-life health decisions. I regularly treat patients dying from cancer, and many of these deaths are slow and painful. Terminal patients will no longer be forced to choose between unrelenting pain and an alert mental state as they approach the end of their lives from terminal diseases. The comfort this brings to their last days can have an immeasurable benefit.”

Missoula attorney Mark Connell, who argued the case to the Supreme Court on behalf of the plaintiff physicians and patients, described the decision as “a victory for individual rights over government control.” Connell added: “The Montana Supreme Court has now recognized that, where intensely personal and private choices regarding end-of-life care are involved, Montana law entrusts those decisions to the individuals whose lives are at stake, not the government. I know Bob Baxter would be very pleased that the court has now reaffirmed that these choices should be left to the terminally ill people in our state.”

Steve Johnson, 71, of Helena, who is terminally ill with brain cancer, hailed the decision and asked the Montana medical profession to provide patients like himself with aid in dying. “I approach the end of my life with a clear mind, and I would like to work with my doctor to minimize the pain and maximize the peacefulness in my dying. I would like my physician to be able to respect and honor my choice to die with dignity. Adults like myself should have the option, if terminally ill, to request physician aid in dying. It’s only compassionate to minimize unnecessary suffering at the end of life, and to let me make the choice about how much suffering to endure, based on my own values and beliefs,” said Johnson.

The movement had widespread support across the state.

Montana State Sen. Christine Kaufmann, Rep. Dick Barrett and twenty-nine other state legislators; the American Medical Women’s Association, the American Medical Students Association, and a coalition of Montana clinicians; the American College of Legal Medicine; the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana; the Montana Human Rights Network; the Northwest Women’s Law Center; terminal patients’ surviving family members; Montana religious leaders; and Montana’s leading constitutional law experts had urged the Court to find in favor of the terminal patient’s right to receive aid in dying from their physicians.

According to Compassion and Choices president Barbara Coombs Lee, the battle for “the right to choose a humane and compassionate death will continue. (We) encourage terminally ill patients to call 800 247-7421 if they would like information about aid in dying, or suggestions on how to open a dialogue with their physician and loved ones.”