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A right to die, a will to live
Don James ’50 and the defense of
Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.

By Todd Schwartz

Don James ’50 was alive.

Alive after a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Alive after 21 radiation treatments. Always in pain, often tired, taking 30 pills a day, using a walker and a wheelchair — but alive.

And one day it occurred to him that his visibility as a proponent of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act — he was virtually its poster boy — might be some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dying on your own terms, after all, is still dying. Maybe trying to fulfill everyone’s expectations, even those with the best intentions, wasn’t so good for him. Maybe, after having had “six months to live” for a few years, it was time to stop considering the need that others in the assisted suicide movement might have for him to expire on time.

And so, sometime last spring, after celebrating the 60th anniversary of his wedding to his beloved wife, Claire, Don James put a new goal in his mind. He would like to reach his 80th birthday: April 2, 2006. He planned to have at hand the doctor-prescribed drugs to take his own life, if what remained of that life became unlivable. He would never want to simply hang on, drugged and dysfunctional. And he passionately wanted the will of Oregon’s voters to stand.

Three months later, on a summer morning, as James looked back over his exhausting years fighting against cancer and for the rights of the dying, the sun lifted above the nearby ridge, light slanting through the room and moving slowly down the far wall. He looked at it for a long time. Grant him just one wish, the look seemed to say, and he would like to live. next page