Colorado physician-assisted death bill supporters, opponents sound off

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Photo: Julie Selsberg and her father, Charles Selsberg
Julie Selsberg with her father, Charles Selsberg.

Last February, Charles Selsberg wrote a letter to The Denver Post. It had a striking headline: “Please, I want to die.”

Only a few months prior, Selsberg, a retired realtor, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. By February, he had trouble eating. He could barely move. He found it difficult to speak. He was told he would never get better.

Machines were keeping him alive.

“This is not living,” Selsberg wrote in his letter to the Post on Feb. 27. “I am not in pain, but I am suffering. Living with this disease is a cruelty we wouldn't tolerate for a pet.”

Selsberg, who was 77 when he was diagnosed, says he was healthy his whole life. He didn't smoke. He rarely drank. He exercised and ate well. He loved movies, street fairs, and traveling.

Now, in his letter, he found himself making a plea. He urged Colorado lawmakers to change the law and allow physicians to do what veterinarians in the state are allowed to do for animals every day: end the suffering of those with terminal illnesses.

Without such a law, Selsberg researched ways to take his own life, says his daughter, Julie Selsberg, who lives in Denver.

His mind was still sharp, she says, but his health had declined gradually in the two years prior to doctors figuring out what disease he had. When the diagnosis finally came, Charles Selsberg's decline was so rapid, as he wrote in the Post, that he didn't even have time to think up a bucket list.

When he reached the point where it would take artificial assistance to keep him alive, such as a feeding tube and a ventilator, Charles Selsberg decided it was over. He wanted to end his life.

“That was his line in the sand,” Julie Selsberg says.

But so physically incapacitated, the only choice left to her father was to stop eating and drinking, Julie Selsberg says. He expected it would take three days for his life to end. Instead, it took 13 days, first at home and then in hospice care.

Julie Selsberg says it was anguishing to watch her father die over those days – and that his death was “brutal” on him. But she has no regrets.

“It wasn’t my choice to make,” she says. “It is his decision and as close as I was to him, it is a personal decision and all I could do was ask him."

When he stopped eating and drinking, she asked him if he was sure: "He said, ‘Yes.’"

Letter a "turning point"

Now, state Reps. Joann Ginal, of Fort Collins, and Lois Court, of Denver, say Colorado physicians should be allowed to assist in the deaths of terminally ill patients who want that choice. The two Democrats plan to introduce their bill when the legislative session starts in January.

Ginal says constituents who want that right have contacted her. She calls Charles Selsberg’s letter in the Post a "turning point."

"It's not suicide," Ginal says. "These people don't want to die. They know their choices and this is another choice for them."

Five states allow physicians to help terminally ill patients who want to die: New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Vermont, according to Compassion & Choices, a Denver-based national nonprofit organization “committed to helping everyone have the best death possible.”

Ginal says she is looking to Oregon’s law for inspiration. The Colorado bill will likely require two doctors be in agreement before they can provide a patient with life-ending drugs, she adds. The patient must be deemed to be of sound mind and there must be two witness, at least one of which has no interest in the outcome of the patient’s decision to die, such as an inheritance.

Catholics to oppose bill

The Colorado Catholic Conference plans to lobby against the legislation. Jenny Kraska, the executive director of the conference, calls the effort a backwards move, coming only a year after Colorado created a Suicide Prevention Commission.

“As a state we recognized last year that suicide prevention was a good,” Kraska says. “And it seems to me somewhat ironic that we would be turning around a year later -- less than a year later -- and potentially passing a piece of legislation that would legalize suicide.”

While lawmakers are focusing on terminally ill patients, Kraska cautions that embracing physician-assisted death for that group can be the starting point on a slippery slope. She points to the Netherlands as an example.

“Originally the law was meant to provide just for people who were defined as terminally ill," she says, but now, "it has expanded far beyond that to anybody who feels that they are suffering, whether it is mental illness, whatever it may be, doctors can now prescribe medicines and pills for those people to kill themselves,” she says. “And they’ve expanded it to children who are terminally ill or have illnesses.”

Citing a letter from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Kraska says that in the Netherlands, a person may qualify for euthanasia or assisted suicide if the doctor “holds the conviction that the patient’s suffering is lasting and unbearable.”

There is no requirement that the suffering be physical or that the patient be terminally ill, the council adds.

The Bishops' letter references the Ohio-based Patients’ Rights Council, a group committed to providing “rational, factual” information about right to die laws.

Looking for options

Julie Selsberg understands there are differing points of view on the matter. Her father died just days after his letter was published. She says watching her father struggle before his death planted the seeds for her to become a spokeswoman to change the law in Colorado.

“All I can say is I respect people’s beliefs and their opinions and I would just ask they respect ours,” Julie Selsberg says, noting that under the proposed legislation, patients and doctors who do not want to participate don’t have to.

Selsberg adds, “Just let it be an option for those who want it.”