Patient With Disability Says No to Assisted Suicide in Her State

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Dependent upon a wheelchair since girlhood, Janice Elsner hopes her rapidly progressing muscular dystrophy won't claim her life before she has a chance to see her 17-year-old daughter go to college. "That would be like a dream come true for me," she says.

Despite pain and her immobility, Elsner says she never would kill herself and thinks the state is making an awful mistake by allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to people facing terminal illness.

That's why she joined a lawsuit seeking to strike down the assisted suicide law, which has held up in court. And that's why she supports the Nov. 4 ballot's Measure 51, which would repeal the law. Elsner understands why people in unbearable pain would want to take their lives. Just a month ago, she survived a bout of pneumonia that brought the assisted-suicide issue home to her.

"I was in tons of pain, and I said, 'I don't want to do this anymore,'" Elsner says. ``And my husband said, 'This is why we don't want assisted suicide. It makes it too easy.'"

Elsner was stricken with muscular dystrophy at age 8. Few victims of the disease live past their mid-20s, and Elsner, at 48, is an unusual survivor. Her doctor is a personal friend who has declined to estimate how much longer she might live. "He's never put a date on it," she says.

The core of Elsner's belief is that life is a gift, no matter what the person's situation. Assisted suicide sends the opposite message, she believes. "If someone becomes an inconvenience or a bother, we throw them away. It's a Pandora's box. We don't have a clue about what this is going to do in the future."

To some, it might seem Elsner has little to live for. Besides her crippled legs, her arms have become shriveled and bent.

"When I got married, I could do everything but walk. I could do dishes, cook, reach for things, fold laundry. Basically, all I can do now is sit here," she says.

A woman comes to the family's modest home in east Portland each morning to help Elsner into her wheelchair and to wash dishes and do other household chores. Elsner spends afternoons alone and in bed. During that time, she often thinks about her daughter, a senior at Portland Lutheran High School.

One recent day when a visitor comes to call, Elsner is busy looking over college application materials for her daughter.

She becomes tearful as she remembers Vanessa's premature birth, with the nurses in the infant care unit painstakingly feeding Vanessa baby formula one drop at a time to keep her alive. "I really feel that life is all we have. It is priceless," Elsner says.

Oregon's assisted-suicide law applies only to terminally ill people who are deemed to have less than six months to live, but Elsner worries that it sends a message to Vanessa and other teen-agers that suicide is a way out when life's problems become too pressing.

"What are we teaching our kids? For teen-agers, every problem seems like a crisis and everything is immediate," she says.

More to the point, she worries that the assisted-suicide law targets terminally ill people who are clinically depressed or who feel they have become a financial burden to their families. Elsner says she's always had her family's love and devotion but worries that others with terminal illnesses might choose assisted suicide out of shame or fear of abandonment.

"Everybody has their own struggles in life," she says. "When you're down and feeling crummy, you feel like saying, 'Somebody shoot me.' But that's when you need support. We all have to take care of each other."

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