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Colorado plans right-to-die legislation

Religious organizatinos say laws facilitate suicide

DENVER – Two Colorado lawmakers inspired by a letter from a terminally ill man plan to propose legislation next year that would allow people to choose when they die.

Before Brittany Maynard became a national advocate for giving dying patients the option to end their lives, Charles Selsberg, 77, wrote an editorial published in The Denver Post urging legislators to take on the issue.

“I have to give my testimony to you now, because by next week I hope to be dead,” Selsberg wrote in late February. He would die in a hospice March 6 of ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Selsberg was a constituent of Denver Democratic Rep. Lois Court, one of the lawmakers drafting the bill for the session that starts in January. “It touched my heart, reading his column,” she said.

The debate over whether terminally ill patients should be allowed to end their lives with doctor-prescribed medication gained national attention with Maynard’s case. After being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, the 29-year-old moved from California to Oregon, where law allows dying patients to use lethal medication from a doctor. She died Nov. 1.

Four other states allow patients to seek aid in dying – Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico. Legislation is pending in New Jersey.

Peg Sandeen, the executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center, said she expects more legislative activity soon.

“Technology has extended our lives far beyond anything imaginable 30 or 40 years ago,” she said. “But there hasn’t been a response in medicine to the question of what happens when I say: ‘Stop. Stop all this technology. I’m far beyond any point where I would’ve died naturally.’”

Rep. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, the other lawmaker working on the Colorado proposal, said it will be modeled after Oregon’s law. Two doctors have to sign off on medication, and the patient must show he or she is of sound mind, Ginal said.

Religious organizations oppose such laws, however, and view them as facilitating suicide and closing the door on the possibility that patients can somehow recover.

“You’re taking away their hope, and you’re taking away their chance for a miracle or a cure,” Janet Morana, executive director of the New-York based Priests for Life, which criticized Maynard’s decision.

In his letter, Selsberg wrote of wishing he had decided to end his life months before. By the time he wrote the letter, his disease was progressing so quickly that it was no longer an option to move to Oregon or another state with a similar law.

Selsberg’s daughter, Julie Selsberg, 46, said his family supported him. “I understood because I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be trapped in a dead body and to be alive,” she said.

She described her father as a regular, hard-working guy, known for his honesty as a real-estate agent in Wisconsin. He moved to Denver after retiring.

Thirteen days before his death, he decided to stop eating and drinking.

“He had to endure those 13 days. That just to me says everything about why these laws are so important,” she said. “Nobody should have to go through that, and you just can’t make that decision for somebody else. It is a personal decision. And he had 13 days to change his mind, and he didn’t.”

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