WASHINGTON -- Former Sen. Jacob Javits, terminally ill and confined to a wheelchair, told rapt listeners at a House hearing Tuesday that people so ill they have no hope of recovery should be given the 'right to die with dignity.'
'Birth and death are the most singular events we experience and therefore the contemplation of death as of birth should be a thing of beauty and not of ignobility,' he said.
The 81-year-old former Republican senator from New York suffers from a form of sclerosis best known as 'Lou Gehrig's disease' for the New York Yankee baseball star who died of it and which leaves the victim physically disabled but clear of mind.
Speaking slowly and haltingly, Javits told the House Select Committee on Aging that many states now recognize the 'right to die' through so-called living wills requesting that life-sustaining equipment not be used when there is no hope of recovery.
The former senator, a lawyer, also said the same right could be protected through a 'durable power of attorney,' which would allow a family member, friend, doctor or legal or religious adviser to decide when the dying person is no longer competent to request an end to life-sustaining efforts.
Javits also addressed the issue of how money and medical resources should be allocated.
'Indeed, not long ago, Gov. (Richard) Lamm of Colorado suggested people with no real prospect of living 'get out of the way' and stop using precious medical resources to be kept alive.'
'It sounded callous, and probably was, but the governor was uttering the truth,' he said. 'Even in this great nation of ours where living or dying should have nothing to do with money -- instead the fact is it does -- and very materially.
'That is what makes the right to die with dignity an issue of morality and humanity as well as of policy and law,' he said.
Javits had a typed statement propped in front of him, its pages turned by an associate in his law firm, but departed frequently from the text -- his voice growing fainter and more hoarse in the nearly two hours he spent before the panel.
He told panel members that he was grateful so many had shown up, saying that he recognized the 'range of responsibilities' they faced because he had served four terms in the House prior to his election to the Senate in 1956 where he served until 1981.
'I am personally in a position where I can concentrate my mind on this issue because I am affected with a terminal illness,' he told them.
Mentally alert, Javits responded pertinently and clearly to questions.
He had a reply to a complaint by Rep. Jan Meyers, R-Kan., a first term member, that the right to die was an 'extremely controversial subject' and that as a member of the Kansas Senate she had been called 'a murderer' only because a bill related to the issue had been before a committee she headed.
'The anguish goes with the job,' Javits told her. 'It's certainly not easy.'