Aiding suicide charge in Pottsville does not seem to square with court ruling

The aspirin tablets in the bottle were of various colors and the little boy thought they were candy, so he helped himself.

When I saw the empty bottle I called the base hospital at Beale Air Force Base in California, where I was stationed, and was told it was urgent to bring him in.

That was the day I found out the 120 mph speedometer indicator of my 1956 Oldsmobile 88 was no idle boast. After they pumped my son's stomach, they said it was a good thing I acted promptly, because that much aspirin could be fatal.

That aspirin bottle was the first thing that came to mind when I was contacted by the Washington office of Compassion & Choices, an organization supporting the right of terminally ill people to die as they wish. Spokesman Sean Crowley pointed out that I had praised Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane on July 14 for her decision not to defend the state ban on same-sex marriages, because that ban is clearly unconstitutional.

"By the same reasoning," he said, "Kane's office should drop a case that impinges on an individual's constitutional rights" in Pottsville. That's where a registered nurse gave her dying and agony-wracked father, at his request, a bottle of morphine in February. Joseph Yourshaw, 93, died four days later at a Pottsville medical facility.

Crowley noted that a hearing on a criminal charge of "aiding suicide" against Barbara Mancini would be held Aug. 1 in Pottsville. I was unable to make it, but a story in The Pottsville Republican-Herald said a district judge ordered that the criminal case go to Schuylkill County Court.

The prosecution of Mancini, 57, is being handled by Kane's office because Schuylkill County District Attorney Karen Byrnes-Noon has ties to the Yourshaw family.

Yourshaw's autopsy was at Lehigh Valley Hospital and Crowley sent me a copy of the autopsy report, which said he died of "morphine toxicity complicating" various other problems with his heart, lungs, liver, kidney and pancreas. But it said there were no abnormalities in his brain.

So a 93-year-old man was dying and was in terrible agony from multiple problems, although his mind was sharp enough to feel them all, and the power structure wanted to keep him that way indefinitely.

Crowley also called to tell me about a U.S. Supreme Court ruling — Washington v. Glucksberg — he felt was relevant.

I found that 1997 ruling and waded through 90 pages of legalistic patois, which boiled down to this main finding: There is no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide, so states can enact laws banning it.

The ruling's majority opinions, however, also said states cannot obstruct "palliative care" to ease pain. "A patient who is suffering from a terminal illness and who is experiencing great pain has no legal barriers to obtaining medication," one opinion said. "There is no dispute that dying patients … can obtain palliative care, even when doing so would hasten their deaths."

I asked Kane's press office about that, and was told to submit questions in writing. So I did, focusing on the Supreme Court opinions saying medication to ease the pain of terminally ill patients cannot be restricted. "How does the prosecution of Mancini square with that part of the Glucksberg ruling?" I asked.

I also asked a hypothetical question, noting a doctor advised me to take one aspirin tablet a day to help keep my heart ticking. "My wife is aware that taking an entire large bottle of aspirin at one time can be fatal [something she learned in California]," I observed. "Therefore, if I decide to knock myself off someday in the future, and I use the aspirin to do it, is it the position of the attorney general's office that she must be prosecuted for giving me that bottle?"

Dennis Fisher of Kane's press office responded thusly: "We have been consistent in not commenting on this case." (I'm not sure if he meant Mancini's or my wife's.)

Crowley, however, was happy to comment when I asked about the impact of the Supreme Court's passage on palliative care.

"I think that's critical," he said.

I feel I must add one caveat. Just because I support the right of people to end their lives as they want, and I decry the prosecution of a daughter for helping a terminally ill father who was in agony, I am not encouraging my wife or anyone else to fill me up with aspirin, morphine or anything else before I'm ready.

Correction on a correction: On Friday, I reported that a previous column was wrong to say the doomed King George Inn in South Whitehall Township was named after the despicable King George III. Historian Frank Whelan said a restaurant owner had told him it was named after the slightly less despicable King George II.

Now I have learned that Morning Call reporter Daniel Patrick Sheehan had been told by another member of the owner's family that it was indeed named after George III, and that is how he remembered it being stipulated on the deed.

I shall make no further corrections on this matter until Wednesday at the earliest.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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