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Originally published Sunday, September 1, 2013 at 12:11 AM

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Guest: Defending death with dignity in Catholic hospital mergers

Throughout Washington, doctors are being silenced and forced to adhere to religious rules that prevent any participation in death with dignity, writes guest columnist Tom Preston.

Special to The Times

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IN 2008, the Death With Dignity Act passed by an overwhelming majority. Washington voters were clear: Dying people had the right to compassionate help from a physician at their time of greatest need, without having to endure a painful, uncomfortable death because of someone else’s religious beliefs or fears. But now the will of the people is being subverted.

One of the biggest benefits of the law is the comfort it gives to so many patients, knowing that they can die peacefully if they face extended suffering at the end. Throughout Washington, however, doctors are being silenced and forced to adhere to religious rules that prevent any participation in death with dignity.

In Clark County, a dying patient who couldn’t get the help he needed while in the final days of a terrible illness recently shot himself. Doctors in the area tell me the rules of PeaceHealth, a health-care system that abides by conservative Catholic rules, restrict them from helping terminal patients exercise their death-with-dignity rights.

On San Juan Island, where voters approved the Death with Dignity Act by a 75-25 margin, and where the percentage of over-65 residents is almost twice that of other Washington counties, the new property tax-supported hospital is subject to Catholic directives and, as such, restricts its physicians, the majority on the island, from helping dying patients under the law.

By the end of this year, almost half of Washington’s hospitals and major medical systems, including hospice facilities, will be subject to moral restrictions imposed by Catholic bishops.

In many counties all of the major hospital and hospice services are subject to the bishops’ authority, meaning that many physicians cannot honor patients’ advance directives and many Washingtonians are denied access to legal and humane end-of-life medical care.

Some brave doctors are speaking out. But many fear possible recrimination from patients or colleagues who oppose the law. And many say they can no longer help dying patients under the law because they are fearful of losing their jobs or privileges in Catholic hospitals if they do so.

If you believe in the rights of dying patients to get the help they seek and deserve in their final days, speak out. Talk to your friends, your legislators, your family members and make your voice count.

Write to Gov. Jay Inslee and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, and speak out against what amounts to circumvention of the law’s intent.

Ferguson recently advised that public-hospital districts must offer abortion services if they offer maternity care, including public hospitals affiliated with Catholic health-care providers.

If you have not yet prepared health-care advance directives, do so, for yourself and your loved ones.

Ask your physician: “Are you subject to any restrictions that might prevent you from helping me exercise my rights under Washington’s Death with Dignity Law?” and “Will you help me if the prognosis becomes terminal and I decide to exercise my rights under the law?”

If a physician says “I can’t help you” or “I won’t help you,” you may want to find one who can and will under the appropriate, legal circumstances.

It’s important to have blunt conversations early on, because if you wait too long, as the patient in Clark County found out, you may not be able to get the help you need when you need it.

A peaceful death, surrounded by loved ones, is a choice that should be respected, honored and treated with the dignity every person deserves.

Tom Preston, a retired physician, chaired the coalition of groups that launched Initiative 1000, the Death with Dignity Act.

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