- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 9, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Longtime civil rights activist John Jay Hooker pleaded before a state Senate committee on Tuesday for a bill to allow physician-assisted suicide.

The 84-year-old former Democratic nominee for governor has terminal cancer. He showed up at the meeting of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee in a wheelchair and at times struggled to catch his breath. But he spoke passionately about the issue, calling it “the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

Hooker said he first came to the Capitol 57 years ago as a young lawyer to prosecute a judge.

“I was here then on behalf of justice. I’m here now on behalf of mercy,” he said.

Political luminaries including former Gov. Winfield Dunn and former Speaker of the House Jimmy Naifeh attended the committee hearing, where Hooker presented physician-assisted suicide as a constitutional right.

“If we have the power to seek happiness, guaranteed by our own constitution, then we have the power to take our own lives when they become no longer tolerable,” he said.

Opponents were equally passionate, warning that allowing doctors to prescribe terminally ill patients lethal doses of pills could lead to abuse by caregivers who no longer want to take care of ailing relatives.

Josue Rodriguez is a community organizer with the Memphis Center for Independent Living. He was in an electric wheelchair and said he has cerebral palsy and vision problems.

He testified that the bill plays into the dangerous idea that death is preferable to being dependent on others for care. He argued that there are better ways to deal with pain than taking your life.

“Alleviating suffering is different from eliminating the sufferer,” he said.

Currently, Oregon, Washington and Vermont have laws allowing physician-assisted suicide. Lawmakers promised to take up the Tennessee bill when the legislature reconvenes in January.

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