View From Lodi, CA: Death As a Part Of Life
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About 20 years ago, Richard Lamm, then Governor of Colorado, created a national firestorm when he said that the elderly "have a duty to die and get out of the way…"

Unfortunately for Lamm, his complete comment never made it to print until several days later.

What Lamm actually said was:

"We've got a duty to die and get out of the way with all of our machines and artificial hearts and everything else like that and let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life."

So what might have been the beginning of an intelligent debate about the ethical issues that often accompany death turned into hysterical finger pointing and name-calling with Lamm as the heavy. 

I agreed with Lamm 100% in 1984.

And in the context of hard-to-find health care monies in 2005, I agree with him even more…even though such a thing is mathematically impossible.

For over two decades, Lamm has been associated with the "duty to die" quote.

During the intervening years, Lamm, a serious and blunt man, has gone beyond his original context to question how much treatment we should offer AIDS patients, severely handicapped children and others in an era of limited health care dollars.

Lamm remains convinced that extended life-prolonging treatment of the terminally ill and very elderly drains scarce health care dollars that should go to the poor, young and uninsured.

Despite the logic of his position, try to envision the reaction if Lamm were to suggest the "duty to die" concept in this era of "the culture of life."

What frightens me is not my own inevitable "duty to die" but spending my remaining years governed by those who aggressively embrace the "culture of life."

I confess to not knowing exactly what "culture of life" means. Apparently it means that life, regardless of its quality, must be sustained at any and all emotional and financial costs.

The life supports that Lamm has argued against for two decades must be, according to "culture of life" advocates, summoned into service no matter what the medical facts might dictate.

Political insiders predict that the "culture of life" will be the central theme in the 2006 Congressional elections. And while it is seen as mostly a GOP issue intended to motivate conservative Christians to get out and vote, Democrats are moving toward "culture of life" also.

Looking further out to the 2008 presidential election, one of the early favorites is Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), a medical doctor and vocal "culture of life" advocate.

Frist makes me nervous.

I am strongly opposed to federal legislation regarding heart-wrenching end of life decisions. I do not want Congress or the Executive Branch of the federal government interfering.

What you may get, based on what we have seen in the Terri Schiavo case, will be legislators like Frist making his life or death judgments by reviewing old videotapes and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay pressing for Congress to get involved in every tragic situation.

Here's what DeLay, who is not a doctor and who once agreed to withhold dialysis from his own brain damaged father, now thinks:

"For one person in one state court to make this decision is too heavy. It does take all of us to think this through." 

Translation: DeLay urges you to put the fate of your loved ones in Congressional hands.

I have been mired in heavy thoughts about death for the last week not just because of Schiavo (and Pope John Paul II) but because a close, lifelong friend recently called to tell me he had been diagnosed with Stage Four cancer.

He may or may not opt for chemotherapy— treatment that I assume the "culture of life" proponents would endorse.

But my friend said something to me that should serve as a lesson for all of us.

Born under unusual and dangerous circumstances, my friend was not expected to live more than a few days.

But he did. And he has lived a rich and full life.

"I've been on borrowed time for 63-years," he said. "And I am completely at ease with my situation."

"Don't spend a day of your own life worrying about me," he concluded. "I have had a great time."

Death is part of life…a concept that is largely ignored by the "culture of life" crowd.

While I value life as much as anyone, I believe that a short life lived well is better than a long life marred at the end by illness and grief.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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