Open the debate on end-of-life issues
When 93-year-old and terminally ill Joseph Yourshaw of Pottsville asked his daughter to hand him a bottle of legally prescribed liquid morphine on Feb. 7, he swallowed more than the prescribed amount and likely hastened his own death.
A home hospice nurse found him, unresponsive, and phoned 911. He died four days later in a hospital where, incidentally, he also had been administered morphine to deal with his pain connected to advanced diabetes, heart and kidney disease, and severe arthritis.
Mr. Yourshaw's daughter, 57-year-old Barbara Mancini of Philadelphia, also a nurse, was charged by local police with assisting a suicide. The case has been handed off for prosecution to the office of state Attorney General Kathleen Kane due to a conflict of interest in the county prosecutor's office.
Last week, a Schuylkill County judge held the charge for trial and slapped a gag order on all of the parties involved, even though the case should produce vigorous debate about the quality of life, the rights of people to steer their own fate and Pennsylvania law relative to both.
Mrs. Kane, who drew praise and condemnation recently when she decided not to defend the state's anti-gay-marriage law on grounds that she believes it to be unconstitutional, has not exercised similar discretion in this case. She should think about it.
Pottsville police contend that, when they responded to the hospice nurse's 911 call, Ms. Mancini told them Mr. Yourshaw had asked for the morphine to end his life. She since has said, however, that she did not control the dosage and had no intention of hastening her father's death.
If she is convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison.
Legally and practically, there are many issues in the case itself. Mr. Yourshaw rebounded and lived four days before he died. And the U.S. Supreme Court has found that a terminally ill person in severe pain may take as much pain-relieving medicine as he chooses, even if it hastens death. Mr. Yourshaw's widow - Ms. Mancini's mother - spoke in her daughter's defense prior to the gag order.
The truth, of course, is that families quietly engage in gut-wrenching decisions about dying loved ones' care every day in hospitals and homes across the commonwealth and nation - privately. Regardless of the case's outcome, the state Legislature should make it a catalyst for a renewed debate on the state's appropriate role.