Marcos Bretón

Opinion: Family circumstances cloud right-to-die debate

Brittany Maynard, a terminally ill woman who decided to end her life early under an Oregon law. She died Nov. 1, 2014.
Brittany Maynard, a terminally ill woman who decided to end her life early under an Oregon law. She died Nov. 1, 2014. AP file

Some memories never leave you, even though you wish they would. You wish they wouldn’t visit in that vulnerable state between slumber and waking where the mind re-creates harrowing images in vivid detail.

My nightmare is always the same. There is my father in September 2008, in the hospice care that was supposed to relieve him of his pain before he died a natural death.

People make mistakes, and they did in his case. The pain from the dozen or so maladies that were killing him was not dulled by meds because the meds were not administered in appropriately high doses on that otherwise gorgeous fall morning.

A simple trip to check up on him became a nightmare that would recur for years in weak moments of contemplation. There he was: stripped of every last shred of dignity in his life, an existence that had been built on the pillars of dignity, strength and self-reliance.

He was hurting so badly that morning he couldn’t speak. His lips were quivering in a way I can’t even describe. He seemed to be begging me to make it stop, but I couldn’t understand him.

It was my fault. I had arrived later than planned because I was working and trying to avoid the odyssey of death that a child experiences when a parent dies.

Yes, my dad mercifully died only days later, but not before he and I experienced unspeakable moments of anguish.

Because experiences like these are common to so many of us, it’s easy to sympathize with grieving families supporting California’s proposed End of Life Option Act. Introduced last week at the state Capitol, Senate Bill 128 would allow terminally ill Californians to end their lives under certain circumstances.

The story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman who died last year, has driven this issue to the forefront. Suffering from terminal brain cancer, Maynard moved to Oregon, where doctor-assisted suicide is legal, to end her life with a lethal dose of barbiturates. Her tragic case struck a chord, and why not? She was beautiful and so brave.

The tearful comments of Maynard’s young husband and mother at the Capitol last week were powerful and have changed the political calculus on this issue. If opponents of assisted suicide counter with the Roman Catholic Church, they will lose.

The “pro” side has sympathy, money and an uninformed public on its side.

If we’re going to have a real debate and not just a campaign of compelling stories, then what needs to be understood is this: Maynard’s story, as heartbreaking as it is, does not represent what this issue typically looks like. Terminal patients most often look more like my father than Maynard.

Beyond compelling individual stories, we need to consider complicated and turbulent details often found in the lives of terminal patients. It is one thing to take a dying family member off of a ventilator. It’s another to purchase medication that ends a life.

It’s one thing when you have a patient such as Maynard, who is in control of her faculties when making the decision to die, and is surrounded by people who love her and play a positive role in her journey.

It’s another when you have divided family situations and motivations.

In truth, I haven’t made up my mind on this issue. But having lived and worked in Sacramento for 25 years, I can see where it’s going: Down a road where the people who tell the best story win – regardless of ugly details. If the state Legislature doesn’t act on this issue this year, it could head to the ballot box in 2016 – and that almost assuredly would take this issue far away from uncomfortable facts.

Putting aside faith-based opposition, consider that many activists for the disabled are dead set against assisted suicide.

“It is important to remember that for every case such as (Maynard’s), there are hundreds – or thousands – more people who could be significantly harmed if assisted suicide is legal,” wrote Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

Golden and others say the disabled would be vulnerable to being coerced into accepting assisted suicide. “At less than $300, assisted suicide is, to put it bluntly, the cheapest treatment for a terminal illness,” Golden wrote in an op-ed for CNN.

Disabled advocates have cited examples of terminal patients in Oregon who were reportedly denied prescribed chemotherapy but were offered drugs for assisted suicide. In all fairness, these cases are controversial and complicated. But that’s the point.

These cases are complicated. They can be convoluted. They are not all alike, and it could be dangerous to treat them all alike under the law.

No one would argue that elder abuse is not a serious issue of our times. Doesn’t assisted suicide place victims of elder abuse in greater danger?

“Nothing in the Oregon, Washington and Vermont laws prevents an heir or caregiver from suggesting assisted suicide as an option, taking the person to the doctor to sign up and witnessing the consent form,” Golden wrote in the CNN piece.

I loved my dad more than any man I have ever known or will know, but I wasn’t in my right mind in his final months. Neither was he. In his state of mind, it’s hard to imagine how I would have even raised the topic with him. He never would have raised it – old-world Catholic that he was. He wanted to live. I wanted him to live.

What about being haunted by the pain of his final days? That feeling has diminished in time because I accepted that I did everything I could. Since passing the age of 50 in the six years since his death, I’ve stopped believing that I can control things that I can’t.

It wasn’t my call to suggest my dad’s death. That was out of my hands and control, as painful as it was for both of us.

We can control certain behavior with laws. But can we control the pain related to the profound complexity of dying? None of us should pretend to know the answer.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee