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As death nears, be prepared to suffer

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When I lay me,

Down to die;

The church won't let me,

Pass on by.

Have you heard about the Belgians? They now allow assisted suicide. Takers have quickly risen to 2 percent of the failing population. The Swiss too have developed a relaxed view of dying. Their immediate goal is to keep from becoming a one-way destination for sick Englishmen, where terminal pain is just part of the stiff-upper-lip image. But even that fine old tradition is now shredding, as a poll shows that 74 percent of Brits favor death with dignity. Of course mere popular support is often insufficient impetus to change such an ancient pointless policy.

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Death is a complicated subject in our country too. Each state has its own rules. Those 48 that have passed legislation, heavily influenced by Catholic bishops, are stern. Death is supposed to be "natural," painful and demeaning. The two states where citizens have wrestled this policy away from government through referendum, namely Oregon and Washington, provide for physician assistance when the patient has finally had a bellyful of pain and decay. This shows that occasionally voter initiative can actually do something worthwhile.

For the rest of us, finding a dignified death can be a struggle. Here in Connecticut, the diligent constabulary in Manchester has just arrested the loving granddaughter of a 90-year-old. She brought in requested pills to help grandma pull the plug. "Criminal attempt to commit manslaughter" they call it. The pills weren't in their original bottle either. Naughty, naughty! It seems grandma was merely "depressed" by her multiple ailments.

But such a loving relative would no doubt be arrested in Oregon or Washington too. Even there only a physician can legally help you die, and you must be within six months of death to qualify. Still, at least the qualifications and options are carefully laid out. Elsewhere there are no options.

Seeking to bring some common sense to our local chaos, two state doctors have filed a civil lawsuit asking the courts to clarify Connecticut's 40-year-old governing statute. They're asking the judge to define what they may do to help dying patients and what they may not.

Even "clarification" is too much for the bishops. They'll fight the case, realizing that while they have lots of clout in the legislature, the courts can be dicey. After all, judges here recently allowed gay marriage.

Other states do worse. Maryland and Georgia have gone after the Final Exit network, raiding homes and offices, confiscating computers and files, and arresting members. Their vile targets, some of whom were pinched on racketeering charges, are accused of advocating death with dignity and advising some sufferers on how to achieve it.

There are a number of such groups around the country. All serve as red meat for Catholic clerics and pontificating politicians.

Enforcement too, comes in all stripes. In most jurisdictions, doctors enjoy significant leeway in prescribing late-term meds. For some hospices that's part of their appeal. But we're just talking last-minute stuff here. For those whose life has simply grown unlivable, help is in order. Whether through legislation, court decree, or referendum, there's a need to provide a sure and dignified end to the awful suffering that surrounds so many Americans so privately and so shamefully today.

Minuteman Media columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.

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