Turns Out It's Not the Black Cats You Have to Watch Our For by Andrew Tobias

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Turns Out It's Not the Black Cats You Have to Watch Our For

Published on November 20, 2001

Shortly after becoming Attorney General, John Ashcroft was headed abroad. An advance team showed up at the American embassy in the Hague to check out the digs, saw cats in residence, and got nervous. They were worried there might be a calico cat. No, they were told, no calicos. Visible relief. Their boss, they explained, believes calico cats are signs of the devil. (The advance team also spied a statue of a naked woman in the courtyard and discussed the possibility of its being covered for the visit, though that request was not ultimately made.)

I reveal this tidbit not to belittle John Ashcroft’s faith or his prudishness, which are his own business, but because he has begun to meddle with my business.

In the middle of the war on terrorism, he has somehow found time to move to overturn Oregon's twice-passed referendum on assisted suicide, to assure that an Oregonian in his final days should be forced to agonize as God intended.

Likewise, for those nauseous with chemotherapy or in chronic pain, he works to overturn California’s referendum on medical marijuana, because – when you think of it – what right have the people of California to decide a matter of such importance for themselves? Where in the constitution does it permit people the right to grow or smoke whatever they want, even if it will ease their chronic pain?

Forgive the sarcasm, but really – how dare he? Hasn’t he more important things to do? How dare he say to those in pain – not op-ed-page pain or hypothetical pain, but you-almost-want-his-children-to-feel-it-to-be-sure-he-understands-the-import-of-what-he’s-doing pain – “Tough. You’ll just have to suffer.”

And if his judgment on these matters, and on calico cats, is so far from humane or rational, how reassured should we be as to the rest of his program?

“Under [Oregon’s] Death with Dignity Act,” reports the New York Times, “a terminally ill patient may take the lethal drugs if two doctors agree the person has less than six months to live and is mentally competent to make the decision to end his or her life. Since the law took effect in 1997, at east 70 people have killed themselves in this way . . . Many more have obtained lethal prescriptions but have died of natural causes before taking the drugs.”

Note that many of those people who died of natural causes obtained from this law a great benefit as well. No, they didn’t wind up using the drugs. But by knowing they could get them, and by having them, they retained the option. They retained control of the decision, and of their lives. If it got too bad, they knew they had a way out.

Dr. Jerome Groopman, the eminent Harvard Medical School professor, was quick to express the alarm of what must be a large segment of the medical community over Ashcroft’s action.

“Not long ago,” his Times op-ed began, “a cancer specialist I know faced a situation that chilled those of us who care for people with terminal illness. A young woman close to death lay suffering in a hospital bed, her husband at her side. Her leukemia had defied bone marrow transplant and experimental drugs. She had begun to bleed into her lungs and was gasping for air. Months earlier, following common practice, the oncologist had had a frank discussion about dying with the woman and her husband. The greatest terror for her, as for most other patients, was that the final days of her life might be spent in unrelenting pain.”

So the patient and her family and her doctor agreed that, if the time ever came, no heroic measures would be taken to prolong her agony, and enough morphine would be used to minimize her pain, even if it speeded her death. (As, Dr. Groopman went on to explain, this it would have to do, because morphine suppresses breathing.)

The time came, the morphine was prescribed – but a respiratory therapist at her bedside “vehemently objected.” Both husband and doctor were shocked; the doctor went on to fulfill his promise to ease the patient’s pain. Within a day, Dr. Groopman recounts, the patient had peacefully died. But the therapist – a man after John Ashcroft’s heart – accused the doctor of having committed a crime and the husband of being an accomplice. Neither charge was sustained, but now John Ashcroft has rushed in to do battle with the devil, to try to right such wrongs in the future and prolong the patient’s suffering.

He has authorized the Drug Enforcement Administration to suspend medical licenses of doctors who prescribe lethal drugs for terminally ill patients.

“This action,” writes Dr. Groopman, “represents a striking lack of understanding of how physicians help patients to die, and it risks making the last days of the terminally ill a time of panic and pain rather than calm and comfort . . . Mr. Ashcroft endangers what has become a compassionate, if tacit, mode of dying throughout the United States.”

“If the Justice Department's action is a political bone thrown to religious conservatives,” he concludes, “it shamefully miscasts health professionals as disciples of the devil rather than angels of mercy.”

We are blessed to live in a time when those who choose Novocain can have it; when those who choose anesthesia during operations can have it. Neither of these miracles is natural, and no one should be forced to avail themselves of them. People should be free to believe in the devil, to fear calico cats, and to endure, for themselves, unimaginable pain. But for John Ashcroft to tell me that I have to endure unimaginable pain? Or that a loved one must?

And just in time for the holidays.

-- Anonymous, January 31, 2002

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