Lawrence group wants to legalize physician-assisted death in Kansas


Physician-assisted death is legal in only three states: Oregon, Washington and Montana. A Lawrence group would like Kansas added to the list.

“I think people should have the option to decide when they are going to die,” said Helen Gilles, 89, a retired Lawrence pediatrician. “When you have lived as long as I have, you realize there are people who want to die, and I think they should be allowed to.”

In March, The Kaw Valley Older Women’s League hosted a program “Life and Death Decision — Who Decides?” The program focused on the three main choices that people have when it comes to end-of-life care. They are:

• Preserving life at all cost.

• Maintaining quality of life but letting the dying process take its course, so you don’t opt to slow down or speed up the process.

• To pursue end of life with a physician’s assistance when death is inevitable.

After the program, members discussed how they thought the third option should be available for Kansans, and then voted unanimously to initiate a community discussion about the issue.

The group also is circulating a petition that requests Kansas lawmakers to introduce legislation that would make physician-assisted death legal with specific restrictions similar to Oregon, which enacted the Death With Dignity Act in late 1997. For instance, Oregon requires a physician to prescribe medication but it must be self-administered. The prognosis must be for a lifespan of six months or less. A written request for prescription and two oral requests from the patient are also needed to escape criminal liability, plus written confirmation by the doctor that the act is voluntary and informed.

According to a report by the Oregon Public Health Division, between 1998 and 2011, 935 people had prescriptions written under the Death With Dignity Act and 596 patients died from ingesting them. The average patient age was 71 and 80 percent of the patients suffered from malignant cancer.

Gilles said, “Our ultimate goal is hoping that the legislature and people will respond to this positively and at least make them think that this might be an option. They don’t have to take it if they don’t want to.”

Helen Gilles

Helen Gilles


The Kaw Valley Older Women’s League, which has about 75 members, is part of the national organization and its mission is to address issues that have a significant impact on midlife and older women. Its membership includes people of all ages, but mostly the elderly, and men.

“If you are not in midlife or an older women, you probably know someone who is. The issues affect everyone,” said Gayle Sigurdson, 51, and a member.

Sigurdson serves on a newly formed OWL committee that is working to add physician-assisted death as an option in Kansas. She said they are learning more about the issue by contacting lawyers, doctors, churches and national organizations. They also are looking at the legislation that was passed in the other states.

“We really respect how complex this issue is and we don’t think anything should happen quickly or without great thought,” she said.

Gayle Sigurdson

Gayle Sigurdson by Nick Krug

The group is calling the legislation Death with Dignity, just like it is in Oregon, and they prefer to call it physician-assisted death instead of physician-assisted suicide. Members say suicide is an expression of despair and futility while death with dignity is a form of affirmation and empowerment.

“We want to emphasize that it is physician-assisted and it’s compassionate end-of-life and we think that’s a much more important and accurate term than assisted suicide,” said Forrest Swall, 80, an OWL member.

Swall said if he were to become terminally ill, he would like to have the option to have a physician-assisted death especially after watching his brother, Jack, suffer.

“He had palliative care. He had hospice care, but when it came down to the last two, three or four weeks of his life, he was in absolute misery,” Swall said. “There was no hope that there was going to be any recovery. He wanted to die but hospice was not able to provide that final physician-assisted choice for him.”

He died of pancreatic cancer at age 76.

Forrest Swall

Forrest Swall

Gilles said it was difficult to watch her mother suffer and remembers her asking: Why is it taking me so long to die?

“That’s a hard question to answer when it’s your own mother,” Gilles said.

Her reply was that she had to be tough to live 96 years, so her body was still tough and just hanging in there.

“Well, she accepted that, but that’s not what she wanted. If she would have had this option, she would have done it,” Gilles said.


Dr. Marc Scarbrough, a hospitalist at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, said he would not be able to assist a patient in dying.

“My job as a physician is to save lives,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t want it as an option for himself.

Scarbrough said there are a number of medications that can help alleviate pain and make patients more comfortable during the dying process.

“In my personal opinion, it’s a slippery slope and there’s the potential for conflict of interest,” he said.

The Rev. John Schmeidler, of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, said the Catholic church does not support physician-assisted death.

“That’s not permissible by the church at all because we say the only one who has the right to take life itself is God himself,” he said. “What you can do is give patients the comfort that they need.”

Schmeidler said unfortunately in our culture, people tend to shy away from death. But, he encourages family and friends to be with their loved ones when they are terminally ill.

“There’s something sacred and holy about entering into the death with them to know that this is their entrance into eternal life,” he said. “It could actually bring healing to people’s lives if they would enter into it in the correct way dealing with prayer and such and with great hope and great expectation of the resurrection of life that’s going to happen.”


Families will be sharing their stories about end-of-life care decisions during a free community program from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday, April 16, at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt.

One family will talk about the consequences of no planning, while another will talk about having a plan in place. A local doctor also will talk about decision-making.

The event is sponsored by the Lawrence-area Coalition to Honor End-of-Life Choices and Lawrence Memorial Hospital to mark National Healthcare Decision Day.

Besides hearing personal stories, participants will learn how to engage family in conversations about health care and preview a segment from the documentary "Consider the Conversation."

Tagged: elderly, End-of-life care, Kaw Valley Older Women's League


Jayhawk1958 6 years ago

We already have Ithis. Its called "malpractice".

Stephanie Anderson 6 years ago

And would you call it malpractice for veterinarians?

Jock Navels 6 years ago

what the catholic church believes is fine for catholics, i suppose. but for the rest of us, their patriarchal voodoo is beside the point. any point.

Linda Upstill 6 years ago

As the Chair of the Coalition to Honor End-of-Life Choices, I would like to make a clarification regarding the National Healthcare Decisions Day program Consider the Conversation: Family Stories to be held tomorrow evening. This program will not be addressing the Death with Dignity petition being promoted by the Older Women's League. Please contact OWL about the petition. Our program is to raise awareness regarding the importance of having a "Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare Decisions" and family conversations on quality of life. Thank you.

Belinda Rehmer 6 years ago

Thank you for your clarification Linda. My mother and I were planning on attending for information re: durable power etc. But the thought of a debate was making us reconsider. If it is information and help with paperwork we will be there.

obamasocks 6 years ago

lol, SERIOUSLY? You know we live in KANSAS, right?

lunacydetector 6 years ago

shouldn't it read physician assisted suicide?

but nice spin with the name change.

booyalab 6 years ago

but what does "assisted suicide" sound like?

Why should only physicians get to assist in death? We could open up death assistance salons, find jobs and a constructive outlet for psychopaths. I don't see a downside.

Jennifer Klopp 6 years ago

If I had an incurable disease and I knew there was only a deterioration to look forward to (i.e., ALS, Alzheimer's, Lewy body dementia), then I might choose to end my life. However, I would want my loved ones to know I was choosing to end my life and why. I couldn't just check out without some explanation. There is a lot of things to take into consideration to pass physician assisted suicide laws, and it certainly could become a slippery slope, but I also think it seems cruel to tell someone who is in misery to hold on. What gives someone the right to make that decision for someone who is suffering? Another question, if the Catholic Church believes only God can take a life, how can Catholics justify fighting in Wars? Just wondering.

Kenneth_Stevens 6 years ago

I am a doctor in Oregon. Legalization of assisted-suicide in Oregon and the state's medicaid prioritized health plan have created a danger for my patients. The plan limits medical care and treatment for patients with a likelihood of a 5% or less 5-year survival. My patients in that category with a good chance of living another 3 years, cannot receive surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy to obtain that goal. The plan guidelines state that it will not cover treatments "with the primary intent to prolong life or alter disease progression" for such patients. Yet the plan will cover the cost of the patient's suicide. The well-publicized cases of Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup are examples of this. In Oregon, choice is an illusion. Don't let assisted-suicide come to Kansas.

Mercy 6 years ago

Excellent points and I agree with you totally.

ladybug18 6 years ago

Thank you so much for posting this. I too do not want this legislation to come to Kansas. Im sure that you as a doctor know that when a patient asks you how long do I have to live nothing is for certain. I work in health care as well and there has been countless times that we thought death was inevitable but the person pulled through. It isnt right to offer to kill someone just because they might die. My job is to save lives, and improve quality of life not assist in death.

Belinda Rehmer 6 years ago

Couldn't have said it better. We quickly forget about the "intent of the law" once it is passed and all of a sudden it is a whole different animal.

Jock Navels 6 years ago

efficient allocation of scarce resources.

George_Braziller 6 years ago

None of us know how our days will end. If I ever reach a point where the pain of being kept alive just to keep me alive is worse than death, I want the option to be able to exit on my terms.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.