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March 03, 2011

7 Questions For: George Eighmey, Oregon Right-To-Die Expert

DSC09233George Eighmey caught a red-eye flight from Portland, Oregon to Burlington on Wednesday to bring this message to Vermonters: Don't believe the myths. A "death with dignity" law will not result in the euthanizing of the disabled, the depressed or any other vulnerable population. It hasn't happened in Oregon. It wouldn't happen here.

Eighmey (pictured), a former Oregon state legislator and retired director of Compassion and Choices of Oregon, was instrumental in passing that state's first-in-the-nation right to die law in 1994 and defending it against a repeal effort three years later.

He is touring Vermont this week to whip up support for passing here what opponents call "physician-assisted suicide." The group Patient Choices Vermont, the main backers of the Vermont bill, H.274, flew Eighmey in for a three-day whirlwind of public forums and media interviews. He will appear alongside Dr. David Babbot, a retired UVM medical professor and board member for Patient Choices Vermont. Forums are today in Middlebury and Manchester Center and Friday in Hardwick. He was also appearing on Thursday's "Mark Johnson Show" on WDEV-FM. For full details, click here. Click here and here for more Seven Days coverage of this issue.

Eighmey argues the Oregon law has worked effectively and without abuse. For a dozen years, he was on the front lines heading up Compassion and Choices of Oregon, an information clearinghouse set up to help doctors, pharmacies and patients and their families navigate the law.

Backers in Vermont are hopeful the law will pass this year (it's failed several times before) because newly-elected Gov. Peter Shumlin supports it and because a recent Zogby poll showed 64 percent of Vermonters back the idea. The bill has yet to get a hearing, and House and Senate leaders have suggested they won't move it forward unless it's clear it would pass.

Seven Days caught up with Eighmey on Wednesday at Muddy Waters coffee shop in Burlington. His next stop was a meeting with Rep. Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington), chair of the all-important House Human Services Committee. Edited excerpts follow:

Seven Days: What's your goal in coming here?

George Eighmey: Basically, setting the record state on the realities of the implementation of the Oregon experience. We have 13 years of experience we can talk about and address the concerns that have been expressed about using the law.

SD: Philosophically, why should terminally ill patients have the right to end their lives?

GE: With almost all of our decisions during life, it's a choice. We decide whether or not we're going to get treatment for an illness, whether we're going to move here, live there. This is a choice issue. I'm a pro-choice person, from abortion issues to all of the other choice issues.

SD: What's the profile of patients who elect to end their lives?

GE: Number one, highly educated. Predominantly caucasian. Upper middle-income. Has life insurance, health insurance. And is fiercely independent, accustomed to having done it their own way their whole lives. And they're family-oriented.

SD: Is cost an obstacle for some people?

GE: Generally not. The cost of the medication is about $500 on average.

DSC09239 SD: What's the biggest hurdle to passing a right to die law — here or in any state?

GE: Overcoming what I call the irrational fears of the people who believe the sky is going to fall. And those people are broken down into two categories. First, the religious ones. No amount of showing of the evidence is going to persuade them. They're not going to change their minds. I respect them, I honor their religion and I tell them I hope they can respect my position. The second category is people who have legitimate concerns. Will the vulnerable be subject to pressure? We've addressed that. We've made sure the safeguards are there so that's not happening. Will this be a slippery slope? We've absolutely stated that is never going to happen. Take the 55 mph speed limit. We say, as a society, that's the way it is. We don't say you can go 150 mph. The slippery slope argument says, Oh yes you will. Eventually you're going to pass laws that allow us to go 150 mph. Well, no we won't. We know as a society we place limits on it. With death with dignity, you have to qualify to use the law.

SD: How can you be sure that dying individuals aren't being coerced into ending their lives — and that you or other advocates just aren't seeing it? In other words, if it's a family thing that happens behind the scenes and you wouldn't hear it from the patient. The patient might say, No I wasn't coerced. It was my own free will. Is there any way to protect against that kind of behind-the-scenes pressure that might go on?

GE: First of all, the safeguards and guidelines within the laws themselves set up a scenario where several individuals are involved in this process: the two doctors, the pharmacy, the hospices, the insurance companies, the family itself. If the scenario is, two kids say, Mom, it's your time. Come on let's do it. This mom is exposed to all these people who are asking her those questions. Somewhere, somehow, somebody's going to find out, including our organization (Compassion and Choices of Oregon). If you ever try to pour liquid down someone's throat who doesn't want it, it's impossible. The person has to drink it themselves. The coercion is reversed: it is the patient who is trying to persuade their loved ones that this is what they want to do.

SD: In Oregon, did you ever encounter depressed individuals who wanted to die that you had to turn away?

GE: Yes. On a regular basis. The law specifically says that if either of the physicians believe this person is making the request based upon depression or a mental incapacity of some type, then they can insist upon a psychological evaluation. We had several psychological evaluations in the first couple of years because a lot of physicians were concerned this person might be depressed. Since then, psychological evaluations have decreased to almost nothing. Why? Because of the screening process. Probably one out of every five people that contacted us was screened out for depression. They were never reported in the data. In Vermont, you have a provision in the [bill] that says the doctor has to report the number of people who actually ask him or her, even if they never got the medication. In Oregon, we don't do that. And I think that's an improvement, because thny it will show that nine out of 10 never complete the process.

"Overcoming what I call the irrational fears of the people who believe the sky is going to fall"

Interesting, this is also the biggest road block to relicensing VY, overcoming the myth that is global warming, and a good many of our economic problems.

Irrational fear.... If only we could get a pill from out doctors for this.

I have read through the proposed legislation in detail have found many troubling elements. I am not convinced you can ever build in sufficient safeguards to effectively ensure that vulnerable populations will not be put at risk. Good legislation has little or no negative consequences;unfortunately that cannot be said of this legislation. For the sake of providing a few "fiercely independent, very controlling" individuals (as Eighmey himself characterizes the C&C crowd) the opportunity to kill themselves as easily as possible, we would be creating a whole new layer of risk for far too many other people. As it is, people already have a right to end their own lives. I don't see where we need to authorize doctors to facilitate that.

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