Right to die 

Pondering potential pitfalls

Molly Galusha cries when talking about her 83-year-old mother-in-law suffering from Alzheimer's disease. According to Galusha, doctors recently pumped fluids intravenously into the elderly woman to revive her, likely saving her life, even though the family had directed them not to resuscitate her.

"To me, that violates her will," Galusha says.

Galusha offers a glimpse into the ethical, emotional and physical challenges families and patients must maneuver when facing death, a topic highlighted during a Monday night panel discussion at the University of Montana about physician-assisted suicide.

The panel comes as the Montana Supreme Court mulls over Baxter vs. Montana, a court case that will dictate whether terminally ill citizens have a constitutional right to ask physicians for help ending their lives. It's a decision eagerly awaited by ethicists, policy makers and others directly impacted, like Galusha.

If the Supreme Court agrees with District Judge Dorothy McCarter's December 2008 findings that doctor-assisted suicide is a constitutionally protected right, the Montana Legislature will be responsible for dictating legal parameters. That's when a tough discussion gets even tougher, warned panelist Mark Hanson, who worked for a bioethics research institute before joining UM as a lecturer and adjunct professor.

Hanson and fellow panelist Con Kelly, another long-time medical ethicist, highlighted a list of potential ugly scenarios that could unfold if doctor-assisted suicide is legalized. For instance, the ill could be coerced into killing themselves rather than accruing medical costs. Disabled individuals might fall subject to social pressures that prompt them to look for an easy way out. And then, there's the slippery slope of defining terminal illness.

"I think there are lots of potential pitfalls here," Hanson told the audience.

But audience members urged the panel to focus on the individual experience rather than using a series of sweeping "What ifs?" The issue is more straightforward when evaluated from the perspective of one dying person, something Galusha knows all too well.

"There's a lot of horror that's happening now," she says.

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