Walter Park and Tom McDonald are both living nightmares that opened with: “You have a terminal disease.” But Park and McDonald are dealing with it in completely opposite ways. If a proposed law fails, McDonald said: “I’ll shoot myself.” Park says he will fight his illness to the last breath. Supporters embrace labels such as “Aid in Dying” and flare at words like patients “killing themselves.” Foes even call it euthanasia but detest titles like “Death with Dignity.” People such as McDonald, stricken with cancer, are closely following this year’s debate. He would take deadly drugs, given the choice provided by AB 374. If the bill fails again, as it has for two years, McDonald, a 77-year-old former Bay Area resident – who says he helped avert World War III by working on long-range missiles – still wants to save loved ones the horror of watching him wither. “I’ll take my pistol and shoot myself in the heart,” McDonald said. After a pause, he added, “Not the head. I want an open casket.” In his Oroville home, he choked up describing what cancer had done to a relative he thought looked like an actress: “I went in the bathroom and almost vomited when I saw her.” His wife, Delores, supports his wishes. In sharp contrast, Park, 61, the first director of the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Disability, will fight AIDS to the end. He opposes AB 374. “I want to draw my last breath naturally,” Park said. “I’ve sat with friends as they died. They loved every single breath.” AB 374, by Nu ez and Democratic Assembly members Lloyd Levin of Van Nuys and Patty Berg of Eureka, would allow a California adult – diagnosed with less than six months to live – to get a lethal prescription, after clearing several hurdles. It’s modeled after a similar Oregon law, under which 292 people have killed themselves during the past nine years. Reports show they were men and women with a median age in the mid-70s, better educated than most, and concerned about loss of autonomy, diminishing ability to be active and loss of dignity. Though polls show about 70 percent of Californians support doctor-assisted suicide, numerous attempts to pass such a law have failed. A 1988 initiative bid did not qualify for the ballot, voters rejected a 1992 proposition and bills fell short in 1999, 2005 and 2006. Many supporters in polls change their position when they learn more, foes said. “The most significant reason is the deadly mix between assisted suicide and profit- driven managed health care,” said Marilyn Golden of Californians Against Assisted Suicide. “HMOs often overrule physicians’ treatment decisions, sometimes hastening patients’ deaths,” said Golden, who also is an analyst for the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund. “The cost of the lethal medication generally used for assisted suicide is about $35 to $50, far cheaper than the cost of treatment for long-term medical conditions. “The incentive to save money by denying treatment already poses a significant danger. This danger would be far greater if assisted suicide is legal.” Glenn Elfman, who is living in an Oregon hospice and plans to use physician-assisted suicide, disagrees and has become an advocate for passage of AB 374 in California. “What I’m doing is a logical extension of the medical care I have been receiving. The stigma of suicide always indicates a person who’s under duress or isn’t thinking correctly. It’s always considered an irrational and illegal act. “But I don’t view this as a suicide. It’s an option that’s available to me when all other options ran out. Assisting a patient in a dignified and peaceful death is an extension of the compassion doctors exercise in their everyday practice.” The two sides also argue over such factors as abuse that could lead to euthanasia, the effect of the state’s health care woes, mental illness as a factor, Christian beliefs on the issue, and seniors using the program out of fear of becoming financial burdens to their families. The most prominent Californian to announce her position has been Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “Terminally ill patients have the right to make their own personal end-of-life decisions,” Feinstein said in a statement. “I know, based on my own experiences with loved ones, that end-of-life decisions are gut-wrenching, difficult and extremely personal. “When terminally ill patients are considering their end-of-life options, they want to discuss them with their family, friends and their physicians – people they trust – and government should not stand in the way.” The bill is supported and opposed by legions of groups. AB 374 is backed by advocates for the elderly such as the Congress of California Seniors and Gray Panthers; the National Organization for Women; Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Bar Association; and the National Association of Social Workers. It is opposed by advocates for the disabled, such as the Center for Independent Living and the California Disability Alliance; the League of United Latin American Citizens; and the Western Service Workers. It has divided the ranks of doctors. Foes have formed organizations such as the Coalition of Physicians for Compassionate Care while supporters have created groups like Physicians for Compassionate Choices. Christians also are split. A group of ministers has formed Clergy for Compassionate Choices. But the Catholic Church opposes AB 374, considering life – from conception to natural death – sacred. Even among Catholics, however, there are differences of opinion. Nu ez is supporting the bill this year, though he is a Catholic. Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, a Newark Democrat who is Catholic, opposes it, saying “death is a matter for God.” As California – the nation’s most populous state – continues its long-running debate, the biggest difference this year is Nu ez. As speaker of the Assembly, he wields more power than prior years’ authors. There are also two dozen legislative co-authors this time. “People would be better off if they had the choice to die on their own terms, knowing they are going to die,” says Nu ez, a Catholic, from a Catholic family with opposing opinions. “The question is how much pain and suffering is involved and how much of that person’s dignity is taken away from him or her because of the pain that he or she is suffering.” AB 374 is scheduled to be heard Tuesday by the Assembly Judiciary Committee. If the bill clears committee hurdles, to pass the Democrat-dominated, 80-member Assembly, it needs 41 votes; and in the 40-member, Democrat-controlled Senate, 21. Then it would face Schwarzenegger, a Catholic with a socially moderate history, married to a Democrat who influences his decisions. [email protected] (916) 447-9302 The decisions by the two, who have never met, define the debate over another attempt to establish physician-assisted suicide in California. The state is facing the hottest clash in years over the emotional issue, which touches on everything from fears it would be used disproportionately on the poor and disabled to religious beliefs that suicide is a sin. A powerful figure, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nu ez, a Los Angeles Democrat in a Legislature dominated by his party, is backing the recurring proposal this year, which needs only a majority vote. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has indicated he would like voters to decide but hasn’t ruled out considering a bill on doctor-assisted suicide – the term originally adopted by physicians. The measure, AB 374, is set for its first and most important test Tuesday, on a topic so touchy that experts agree there’s not even a neutral term.