Idaho doctors can offer a compassionate option

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Compassion & Choices works in courts, legislatures and communities to protect and expand individual rights and liberties at the end of life. We work to improve end-of-life care in many ways, promoting policies to improve pain and symptom management, to ensure that patients have information about, and the ability to choose, options that are most consistent with their values and beliefs, including the right to choose aid in dying.

Aid in dying refers to the request of a mentally competent, terminally ill patient for a prescription from their physician for medication that they can consume to bring about a peaceful death. As medicine has progressed, one of the challenging realities is that for some terminally ill patients dying can be so prolonged and agonizing that they find themselves trapped in a process they find unbearable. Few states have addressed aid in dying in their statutes. Oregon and Washington have made the practice affirmatively legal by statute. The right of Montanans to choose aid in dying was recognized by a recent decision of the Montana Supreme Court.

Idaho is situated in the middle of this group of states. Idaho does not have a statute specifically addressing aid in dying, either to permit or prohibit the practice. It does not even have one of the vague statutes that makes a crime of assisting another to "commit suicide." Accordingly, in Idaho, physicians can provide aid in dying subject, as is most medical practice, to the standard of care developed by the medical profession. Idaho physicians can look to the standard of care in Oregon, Washington, and Montana, as it is evolving among medical professionals in these surrounding states. I will discuss this option when I speak to the Idaho Medical Association at its July 17 conference in Boise. I invite Idaho physicians who provide care to terminally ill patients and who support patients being able to choose aid in dying to hear this presentation.

Although some vocal and powerful minorities are opposed to patients having this choice, aid in dying is widely supported by the public as well as medical and public health organizations. Idaho physicians can look to policies on aid in dying that have been adopted by the American Medical Women's Association (AMWA), the American Medical Student Association (AMSA), the American College of Legal Medicine (ACLM), and the American Public Health Association (APHA).

Tragedies like the recent case in Meridian can be avoided. There, an elderly couple were both dying of cancer. In April, the 87-year old man shot and killed his 90-year old wife, and then turned the gun on himself. As Idaho physicians begin to offer aid in dying among other end-of-life care options, including pain and symptom management and hospice care, terminally ill patients will have an additional compassionate end-of-life option should they find themselves trapped in a dying process they find unbearable.

Kathryn L. Tucker is a resident of Ketchum, Idaho. She is a graduate of Georgetown University Law School, and serves as Director of Legal Affairs for Compassion & Choices, a national non-profit public interest organization dedicated to improving end-of-life care and expanding and protecting the rights of the terminally ill. She will be speaking at Unity Church in Coeur d'Alene Saturday at 1 p.m.

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