Editorial: Death issue mishandled

Whidbey General Hospital took a curiously non-public approach to how it will comply with the so-called Death With Dignity Act approved by voters last November.

The measure allows assisted suicide under certain conditions. Supporters see it as a way for terminal patients to end their lives in a dignified manner, while opponents see it as another erosion to the sanctity of life.

Hospitals statewide had until last Thursday to decide how they would respond to the new law. One course was to simply “opt out” and have nothing to do with the issue, which is what many hospitals chose to do. Others, like Whidbey General, didn’t choose to opt out, which suggests the hospital could facilitate the death-with-dignity process, assuming any patient or doctor wanted to participate. No deaths at the hospital are anticipated, because terminal cases almost always expire in nursing homes, at home or in hospice facilities.

Although Island County voters supported the Death With Dignity initiative by a 58.8 percent margin, those who oppose it do so with vigor. Whidbey Island’s only hospital should have taken a much more public approach to how it dealt with such a sensitive issue. There are five elected hospital district commissioners who should have publicly discussed the opt-out option, and taken a vote on it. The vote should have followed at least one public hearing to solely address the Death With Dignity issue.

Instead, the hospital handled the issue with an in-house ethics committee that decided not to opt out, but explained its fuzzy “neutral” decision in a wishy-washy way. The fact is, Whidbey General Hospital decided not to opt out, and therefore could eventually be involved with ending life. That’s a big change, one that demanded a role for the public.

The decision was particularly curious because Whidbey General Hospital could not exist without taxpayer funding. In such cases, it’s never a good idea to adopt a policy that will anger a good portion of the voting populace.

An example of how the process should have been handled was set in Anacortes, where the Island Hospital commissioners voted 3-2 to fully participate in the Death With Dignity process after a sometimes-emotional public discussion.

Obviously, the Whidbey hospital commissioners have a lot to learn about running a public hospital district.

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