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Debating choices of life, death

If life holds only intolerable pain, should the dying be able to choose death? And should a doctor be allowed to assist in that death?

Those were among the questions debated Saturday at a public forum in Tampa featuring Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society and author of the best-selling Final Exit.

As author of the controversial book that outlines ways to commit suicide, Humphry also is a vocal proponent of physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.

"Doctors help us into the world," Humphry said. "Why not follow through with the logic that they should help us out of the world?"

Most of his fellow panelists disagreed.

Robert Walker, director of ethics and humanities at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, cautioned against moving too quickly on the "slippery slope" of physician-assisted suicide.

The first euthanasia law to be considered in the western world was defeated in Washington state in November. But Humphry said he expects the law to fare better when it comes up for a vote Nov. 3 in California.

Had the measure passed in Washington, terminally ill patients _ conscious, competent adults _ would have been allowed to ask a doctor to help them die, probably with a drug overdose or lethal injection.

Humphry said other states have shown interest in physician- assisted suicide, including Maine, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire. He said he'll try a euthanasia proposal in Florida in 1994. "There's evidence in surveys that show 50 percent of the doctors (in the United States) would approve of this once it's lawful," he said.

But Tampa psychiatrist and panelist Yvonne Cummings said that in nearly all cases, good medical care can alleviate a dying patient's suffering. The role of a physician is to heal and not to kill, she said.

Some members of the audience said they had lost faith in medical and legal systems and were thankful for Humphry's book.