Dying Man Pleads For Ashcroft to Allow 'Death By Choice'

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - A terminally ill Massachusetts man pleaded with the U.S. attorney general Tuesday to withdraw his order effectively blocking the Oregon right-to-die law.

"We should have a choice how we should go when it gets down to the end, provided we're mentally competent," said 59-year-old Nelson Pritchett, who suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease, a fatal neuromuscular disease that results in progressive muscle weakness and then paralysis.

"I think I should have a choice," said Pritchett; "after all, it's my body. Hell, I don't want to die; I'm normal," he added. "But that's not my option anymore."

According to Pritchett, who ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994, he is in the final stages of the disease and is not expected to live much longer. He plans to end his own life by refusing food.

As the U.S. attorney general and the state of Oregon lock horns in federal court over the state's doctor assisted suicide law, the Hemlock Society, a right-to-die group, is taking the case to the court of public opinion.

Pritchett, a Massachusetts resident, traveled to Washington, D.C. in conjunction with the launch of the ad campaign, which so far has run two quarter-page ads in the Nov. 23 and Nov. 25 editions of the New York Times.

The Hemlock Society is hoping its ad campaign will "derail" Ashcroft's directive by mobilizing the American people, Congress and maybe even the Bush administration to stop the federal government from interfering with the 1997 Oregon law and with the public debate in other states about the controversial issue.

Reversing the Clinton administration's position, the Bush administration issued a directive on Nov. 6 stating that assisting in a suicide does not qualify as a "legitimate medical purpose" and that prescribing, dispensing or administering federally controlled substances (prescription drugs) to assist suicide violates the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Under Ashcroft's directive, Oregon physicians could no longer provide lethal prescriptions to terminally ill adult state residents. (The state's Death With Dignity Act does not permit physicians to actually administer the drugs.) Physicians who violate the directive will lose their licenses.

A federal judge in Portland ruled on Nov. 20 that Oregon's law allowing physician-assisted suicide will remain in effect for five months while the state prepares its case.

The Hemlock Society warns that Ashcroft's directive will make physicians afraid to prescribe aggressive pain killers to terminally ill patients, stop states from making their own laws regarding doctor assisted suicide and prevent terminally ill people from seeking a "gentle, quick death." Pritchett adds that Ashcroft will make people afraid to ask for help dying.

The group is calling for congressional hearings and legislation explicitly allowing states to decide the matter. Oregon is the only state with a law allowing doctor-assisted suicide. According to the Hemlock Society, less than one-tenth of one percent have requested such physician assistance.

Opponents of assisted suicide argue that the government and physicians have a duty to defend human life-a duty that cannot be reconciled with doctor-assisted suicide.

Whichever way the Oregon case is resolved, it will not help Pritchett or other residents of his home state of Massachusetts. Instead, he hopes his efforts to draw attention to the issue will return the issue to state control and prompt other states to adopt an Oregon-style law.

Pritchett drew a distinction between suicide, which he characterized as a healthy person doing a "dumb thing," and "death by choice" for people who are near death.

As for himself, he says he dreads a dying process that makes it difficult to breathe. His first choice would be to seek life-ending medication, something he doesn't believe his veterans hospital will give him. So he plans to die by starvation and hopes that, in the future, others will have more choices.

See Also:
Doctors Caught in Middle of Fight over Assisted Suicide Law (November 21, 2001)
Oregon Battles Attorney General Over Right To Die (November 20, 2001)
Emotions Rise Over Ashcroft Decision On Assisted Suicide (November 06, 2001)