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Oroville man continues fight for the right to die

In Oroville, 70 miles north of the state Capitol, the sound of the gavel
sealing the fate of a bill to allow assisted suicide still echoes in the
ears of Tom McDonald.

Perched atop the outdoor patio of his one-story flat, the 76-year-old
retired electrical technician looks over a panorama of Lake Oroville’s
glimmering south shore. A few hundred feet beneath him, dozens of houseboats
adorn a shoreline that hugs the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.

The grandfather of eight has treasured his home, and its beautiful view, for
almost 25 years. According to his doctors, he has only a few months left to
enjoy it.

A PET scan performed in the winter of 2005 revealed that McDonald had large
patches of melanoma near his knee, shoulder and chest. The PET scan was a
follow-up to an operation McDonald underwent that fall to remove a melanoma
patch behind his right knee.

On January 5, McDonald was told he had less than a year to live. McDonald,
who worked much of his life as a consultant for a defense contractor and Bay
Area Rapid Transit, says that, in retrospect, he is glad he learned of the
terminal prognosis.

“I have an advantage over all you beautiful people,” he said. “From a
professional, I was told when I was going to expire. That way I can put my
house in order, write some letters that will probably be my last letters to
some relatives and close friends.”

After discussing the issue with his wife, Dolores, McDonald declined to
enter a clinical trial with an experimental treatment for his specific type
of skin cancer. McDonald said the doctor told him he would have a 13 to 15
percent chance of survival if he opted for the treatment.

McDonald, who claims that neither he nor his family has any history of
mental illness or depression, seriously considered committing suicide rather
than suffering though the final months of his illness. In public statements
and private letters to Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka, co-sponsor of AB
651, McDonald wrote that he was “planning to give [himself] a 9 millimeter
injection to the head.”

Berg’s bill would have taken away McDonald’s need for such a dramatic
ending. The bill, which would have allowed physician-assisted suicide in
California, was defeated this summer in the Senate Judiciary Committee amid
opposition from Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Garden Grove, the chair of the committee.

The bill authored by Berg and Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, would
have allowed doctors to prescribe life-ending barbiturates to terminally ill
patients with less than six months to live. McDonald says he was
thunderstruck by Dunn’s action.

Although McDonald maintains he’s not in pain today, the last 10 years have
been a medical nightmare for him.

Over the last decade McDonald has been diagnosed with an erratic heart,
walking pneumonia, arthritis in his hips and knees, and an ulcer. He’s also
undergone two hip-replacement surgeries and two melanoma operations.

“When you’re married, you accept those things,” said Dolores, who married
McDonald in 1981, then a widow in Concord. “In a way it’s been difficult,
but in a way you have to accept what life gives you.”

But McDonald’s desire for a brief and painless death, even if it must be
self-inflicted, has as much to do with his mother’s experience with cancer
as his recent health problems.

His mother’s prolonged battle with the disease, during which McDonald said
she was bed-ridden and constantly demanding morphine injections, left an
indelible impression on his attitudes toward end-of-life decisions.

“Her pain was so severe. She was just in excruciating pain for at least four
months. I don’t want to go like that. That was horrible to see,” McDonald
said.

McDonald had put his suicide plans on hold while testifying in favor of AB
651.

After reading a Sacramento Bee article on the bill, McDonald contacted
Berg’s office to voice his support. After brief correspondence and a
personal visit from Steve Hopcraft, spokesman for the right-to-die advocacy
organization Compassion and Choices, McDonald agreed to drive to Sacramento
and testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Now that the bill has been defeated with the deciding no-vote cast by Sen.
Dunn, McDonald suggested that he is again exploring the option of taking his
own life before his condition worsens.

“If this AB 651 isn’t resurrected by the time that I need it, I’ll just do
it my way. And then say thank you, Senator Dunn,” McDonald said.

When asked to clarify what he meant by “do it my way,” McDonald said, “I
have an ace in the hole that I’m not going to tell anybody. But it’s in
cooperation with another group. They’ve offered their services to me.”

“I may not have to do what I said in there [the letters to Berg]. We’ll see.
I’ve been in touch with them by e-mail and telephone. They’ve been very,
very thoughtful and considerate of me. They want to help me.”

McDonald declined to state the name of the group assisting him.

Sen. Dunn declined to answer questions regarding AB 651. However, his office
did issue a statement responding to McDonald’s comments: “The Senator
encourages any Californian who is passionate about any issue including
physician-assisted suicide to exercise with all their abilities their rights
in the Democratic process. His job in the case of AB 651 was to cast a vote
based on his conscience, and he did that.”

Although not intended as a political ultimatum, McDonald’s suicide
suggestion begs the lingering question of where the right-to-die movement
goes from here.

Both supporters and opponents of physician-assisted suicide say they are
unsure whether the issue will be brought up again during next year’s
legislative session.

“We need to sit down after the session is over and figure it out,” said
Levine. “But we’re not giving it up. We’re both, for our own personal
reasons, committed to this.”

Compassion and Choices, the leading right-to-die advocacy organization in
the nation and a strong backer of AB 651, has not stated publicly whether it
intends to renew its California legislative efforts next year.

However Californians Against Assisted Suicide (CAAS) spokesman Tim Rosales
predicts that, despite the uncertainty surrounding Compassion and Choices, a
similar bill will emerge in the near future.

“Members of this coalition, and those opposed, are anticipating that the
authors will bring this up again,” he said.

Rosales’ coalition, which includes the California Catholic Conference,
League of Latin American Citizens and California Disability Association, has
proved a potent force in heading off several right-to-die legislative
ventures.

Despite the Democratic dominance of both legislative houses, CAAS levied its
considerable political and financial muscle to shoot down a 1999
assisted-suicide proposal from former Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, D-Berkeley.

Because of their repeated failures in the Capitol, many right-to-die
advocates have suggested directly imitating the Oregon Death with Dignity
Act, the famous 1994 ballot measure making Oregon the first state in the
nation to legalize assisted suicide.

A March Field Poll revealed that 69 percent of registered California voters
believe that incurably ill patients should have the right to ask for and
receive life-ending medication. Proponents of a ballot-initiative eagerly
cite the fact that this percentage has been relatively consistent over the
last three decades.

The difficulty with an assisted-suicide referendum, critics say, is that the
Catholic Conference and other religious organizations enjoy a considerable
financial advantage over their rivals–translating to an overwhelming media
blitz come election time.

Although assisted-suicide supporters
can hold their own in smaller states
like Oregon, the cost of a California referendum campaign would be
prohibitively high.

“The problem is we can’t compete with the money of the Catholic church,”
said Levine.

But that all may come too late for McDonald. And while he continues to
advocate for the right to die, he says he’s enjoying what time he has left.
“I’m not afraid of dying at all,” McDonald says. “It’s not depressing to me,
I mean, I’ve just had a beautiful life. It’s just time to go. But while I’m
here on a lend-lease, I’m going to enjoy it. When that time comes, I’m going
to say bye everybody, thanks a million.”


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