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Efforts to introduce 'Death with Dignity' laws in Pa. stall

| Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Lana Lindaure poses for a portrait holding a picture of her husband John and his '57 Chevrolet Bel-Air, in his man cave, at her home in South Greensburg, on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
A picture her John Lindauer, sits in the home of his wife Lana in South Greensburg, on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Lana Lindaure holds a picture of her late husband John while she sits in his chair at her home in South Greensburg, on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Lana Lindaure poses for a portrait holding a picture of her husband John and his '57 Chevrolet Bel-Air, in his man cave, at her home in South Greensburg, on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016.

Seconds after Lana Lindauer stepped out of her husband's bedroom to fetch his medicine, she heard the shot.

John Vogeleer used a handgun to take his life.

“I came out of the kitchen to get the prescription bag. ‘Bang!' And I went flying back in, and I saw the most horrible thing I've ever seen in my life,” the Hempfield resident said.

Lindauer has suffered panic attacks since her husband's death in November 2014, but she doesn't resent his decision. In fact, she said she is proud of him.

She just wishes he could have taken his life quietly — and with assistance from a doctor.

“It would have been better for my husband, and for me, if I could have sat with him, legally, while his mind was good, and he took pills,” Lindauer said.

Efforts to introduce “Death with Dignity” legislation to the Pennsylvania General Assembly have repeatedly stalled, but some lawmakers and activists think future efforts will succeed as other states enact similar laws.

“Every year, things take time in the Pennsylvania legislature, especially controversial things, but we feel this is inevitable,” said state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, who has authored numerous medical aid-in-dying bills since 2007.

Right to choose

Vogeleer, 79, suffered from sepsis after a hip replacement became infected, his wife said. He was in immense pain and could barely walk. They both thought he was dying.

Lindauer has always believed a person with a terminal disease has the right to choose how and when to die, she said.

“How many other people do what my husband did that we never hear about?” she asked.

Since her husband's death, Lindauer has tried to share her views with little success. Her petition to support “Death with Dignity” laws attracted fewer than 40 signatures.

It is impossible to tell how many people decide to kill themselves because of a chronic or terminal disease, but it's a fairly common practice, according to Westmoreland County Coroner Kenneth A. Bacha.

“Each and every year, it doesn't change. We always have people with failing health, especially the elderly, who take their own lives,” he said.

There were 50 suicides in Westmoreland County in 2015, 17 of them by people older than 60, figures from the coroner's office show.

So far this year, 51 suicides have been reported in the county. Ages and other information is not yet available for those deaths.

Momentum needed

Colorado voters this month approved a referendum legalizing assisted suicide, making it the sixth state with such legislation. Oregon became the first in 1997, following three years of legal challenges.

A national Gallup poll in June found 69 percent of people support euthanasia, a number that has remained fairly consistent since the early 1990s.

“I definitely get the sense that people want this in Pennsylvania,” Philadelphia's Barbara Mancini said.

She was charged in 2013 with aiding the suicide of her 93-year-old father, who died of an overdose of legally prescribed morphine. The case was later dismissed.

Since then, Mancini has given talks in 20 states on behalf of Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit that advocates for medical aid-in-dying legislation.

“I would like to see more momentum in Pennsylvania, but whether it will happen in the next few years, it's hard to say,” she said.

Even if such a law had existed in Pennsylvania two years ago, it might not have helped Lindauer and her husband. Laws in other states mandate that a patient be diagnosed to have fewer than six months to live before a doctor can prescribe lethal medication.

Doctors had not diagnosed Vogeleer with a terminal illness, Lindauer said. Sepsis mortality rates range from 30 percent to 80 percent, depending on severity, according to medical research.

Medical aid-in-dying laws only apply to people who are of sound mind and for whom death is inevitable, not those with chronic pain or an uncertain diagnosis, Mancini said.

“I think the safeguards as they're written ensure this is a rational decision,” she said.

But opponents of assisted suicide believe these safeguards are arbitrary and unenforceable.

“If it's all about me, my decision, my right to choose, what about someone who has eight months to live, what about their rights?” said Alan Holdsworth, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Coalition to Stop Doctor-Prescribed Suicide. “What about someone who has a year to live?”

He sees the question as a slippery slope that could lead to the elderly or disabled being coerced into taking their own lives or to the legalization of all suicide. He would prefer the state focus on offering better mental health and palliative care.

“Do we really want everyone to have the right to commit suicide, or is it just the small few? And if it is the small few, why should they have that right above everybody else?” he said.

Support or opposition to such legislation doesn't fall neatly along party lines and can at times make unlikely bedfellows.

Holdsworth described himself as a staunch liberal, but the coalition he represents includes organizations like the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which opposes the practice on religious grounds.

‘Medical aid in dying'

Even the language used to discuss the topic is fraught.

Advocates avoid phrases like “doctor-assisted suicide” or “euthanasia,” preferring language like “medical aid in dying” or “death with dignity.”

Holdsworth expects Pennsylvania has a long battle ahead, and he sees the organization Compassion & Choices as the enemy.

“I think we are in a fight. We've got a multi-million company against us,” he said.

Several lawmakers in Southwestern Pennsylvania said the issue likely will remain a distant concern.

“That's a tough call for all of us,” said State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline. “I think the fact that there were few co-sponsors (on Leach's bill) indicates that the legislature has little intention or appetite for that kind of thing.”

Besides Leach, the most recent version of the state Senate's death-with-dignity bill had one sponsor, State Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Lehigh.

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, agreed it is a complicated issue and not one that most of her constituents think should be at the top of her to-do list.

“It's not anywhere near a priority,” she said.

Leach, however, predicts medical aid in dying will be legal within five years.

He wrote legislation to legalize gay marriage and medical marijuana in Pennsylvania — hot-button issues that seemed infeasible a few years ago that are now legal. Leach said he sees a similar path for death with dignity.

“I'm a believer that we can make progress,” he said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or jtierney@tribweb.com.

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