Cover Story

Last Rights

A federal appeals court ruling two weeks ago in a right-to-die case threatens to impose upon the United States a Roe v. Wade for the elderly and infirm. But Christians are fighting the ruling in court and providing bedside comfort and care for those who otherwise would receive only an appointment with Dr. Kevorkian.

Issue: "A reason to live," March 23, 1996

Today has been a bad day, and a nurse's aide isn't helping matters as she loudly orders Laurie to "sit up" in her wheelchair. Laurie is a quadriplegic; she can't sit up by herself. But she's not deaf and she's not stupid. As the aide tries to reposition Laurie, she tells Laurie's friend, Julie Grimstad, that maybe Laurie is just upset about her move; her room is being changed because Laurie's north Texas nursing home is remodeling. Laurie's eyes flash side to side, her way of saying to anyone willing to pay attention-"No, no, it's not the move."

Mrs. Grimstad intervenes, offering soothing words to the 31-year-old and gently easing Laurie's arms into their arm rests. When that's done, she flips the chair's toggle switch that lets Laurie guide her small universe forward with slight head movements.

Laurie's troubles are nothing so slight as a room change. The most immediate problem is that she's a little bit battered; attendants didn't use a padded shower chair when they bathed her today, and the hard metal-and-plastic chair hurt her weakened, 80-pound body. Since she can't speak, she can't really protest.

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The larger problem is that there are two bullets still lodged in Laurie's brain. Details about the shooting are vague, but it was most likely drug-related. It happened last May, and it left Laurie unable to move, to talk, to swallow food.

Laurie eases up to a green, wrought-iron table in her nursing home's carpeted alcove. She very nearly nods a greeting to her new visitor; with each question asked, she turns to Mrs. Grimstad and begins the slow chore of spelling her responses. The alphabet is divided into six lines on a chart Laurie has with her; but she and Mrs. Grimstad don't need it anymore.

"Top part?" Mrs. Grimstad asks.

Laurie flicks her eyes quickly; this means "no."

Bottom part of the chart, then, Mrs. Grimstad deduces, adding: "First line?"

Laurie's eyes flash upward; this means "yes."

"N?" Flick.

"O?" Flick.

"P?" Flick.

"Q?" Flick.

"R?" Flick.

"S?" Flash! The first letter of the first word in the sentence is "S."

"Sometimes," she and Mrs. Grimstad then slowly spell out, "I think they made a mistake saving me."

Then does she want to die? Slowly, deliberately, Laurie spells out her reply:

"Sometimes."

According to a recent federal court ruling that struck down Washington State's assisted-suicide ban, Laurie has a right to die. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared two weeks ago that the Constitution guarantees a person's right to have a say in "the time and manner of one's own death." The ruling goes far beyond affirming that people can decline treatment for themselves (that's what so-called living wills do); the ruling, if allowed to stand by the Supreme Court, would let doctors prescribe lethal doses of medication for patients who ask. It adds that those who help-doctors, family members-should not be prosecuted.

Though for now it applies only to the nine Western states within the 9th Circuit, experts say it may only be a matter of time until the Supreme Court is asked to rule on the Washington State case, or a similar case before an appeals court in New York. If the decision should stand, it could prove to be for the old and infirm what Roe v. Wade has been for the unborn: disaster.

Most of the issues raised by the new court ruling can be found in Laurie's story:

When is life not worth living?

What should be done when the physical or emotional pain of an illness becomes unbearable?

And does the 9th Circuit ruling place caregivers of the elderly and the ill on a slippery slope?

"Most people look at Laurie and say they wouldn't want to live that way," says Mrs. Grimstad, a Roman Catholic. Mrs. Grimstad's Center for the Rights of the Terminally Ill fights its battles with nursing homes, caretakers, and healthcare providers from her suburban home. Her mission is a personal one; her brother survived a diving injury as a quadriplegic. She says that when many people talk rashly about the "right to die," they often don't fully understand that handicaps can be overcome and even the end of life can be full of hope. "Maybe they don't realize that they're really saying they'd rather be dead than disabled, because I don't think they really mean that."

Often suicide seems a bitter cure for the fears many disabled and infirm people feel, notes Dr. David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society. "There's depression ... and nearly every patient at that point thinks about suicide. And also, they fear that they'll be a financial burden to their family."

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