Years of struggle,
Joy and strife;
Body’s done,
But not my life.

It’s been 25 years now since an AP poll revealed that a majority of Americans thought terminally ill patients should have the right to die. Assuming, of course, that they wanted to. Fat lot of good that poll did. Not one state legislature has followed it.

Fortunately in two states where citizens have the right to take legislation into their own hands, Oregon and Washington, public initiatives have enacted Death With Dignity laws anyway.

These laws allow a structured end to the harsh suffering that accompanies so many fatal diseases. The Montana Supreme Court seems to have accomplished the same thing under its state constitution.

Not so here in dowdy Connecticut. Two doctors recently sued for clarification of our assisted suicide statute, but the court wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. Neither would the legislature, though the Judiciary Committee leaders seem sympathetic and the public seems likewise. Nor is anyone silly enough to suggest that Connecticut adopt its own initiative process. Not after watching California’s long-term self-immolation using that suicidal practice. About half the states do allow initiative nonetheless.

Meanwhile patients everywhere writhe in pain and indignity, families languish in grief, and physicians fidget in perplexity. More than a few docs prescribe stiff pain killers on which the victim can privately overdose when the moment is ripe. A few how-to books also offer instruction on the detailed use of plastic bags, helium, and large doses of toxic medication. In families where firearms are a tradition, the solution, though messy, often suggests itself. Society then feigns appropriate shock and horror when the act is carried out.

Progress in the rest of the world isn’t exactly zipping along either. The British are still grappling with the high-profile case of a distinguished broadcaster who divulged, on the air no less, that he had mercy-killed an AIDS-ridden friend years before. The prosecutor wants to make an example of him, but an example of what, in the public eye, isn’t all that plain. The UK, like America, seems to have had a bellyful of that tired religion-based tradition of enforced terminal suffering. Nowadays Brits who can afford it scoot over to Switzerland to pull the plug. It’s legal there.

Like the Swiss, Germany is also into reform. Its highest court has just ruled that it’s not illegal to assist loved ones who have expressed a desire not to be kept alive artificially. This is bad news for the Swiss, who have been profiting from German as well as British self-deliverance customers. If other countries follow suit they may soon have to go back to making watches.

Understandably, this whole issue has been especially difficult for the Germans because of the history of the Nazis, including gas chambers and the abuse of euthanasia for the developmentally delayed and others deemed “undesirable.”

But all these advances remain relatively small. And they’ll continue small until we reach the biological perfection of “Brave New World.” In that chilling Aldous Huxley novel, one’s body ran normally at full tilt until one day, typically at age 60, it totally stopped. Rather like running out of gas.

With that medical miracle still far over the horizon, a sensible way to deal with terminally ill patients suffering excruciating pain remains painfully stuck in the world of politics. It’s a world where publicity-hungry sheriffs and prosecutors try to entrap humanitarians into giving deliverance advice to fake desperate patients.

Just wait until it’s their turn.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. www.otherwords.org