Physician Assisted Suicide faces continued pushback in New Hampshire and Vermont
By Jennifer Popik, JD, Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics
Last week, the New Hampshire House of Representatives resoundingly rejected several dangerous bills, including HB1325. By a vote of 219-66 the House voted down HB1325. New Hampshire, along with other New England states, continues to be a high priority target of the death advocates after Vermont legalized doctor-prescribed suicide last year.
HB1325 is nearly identical to the Oregon law which has been effect for over 15 years. Like Oregon’s law, the New Hampshire law purports to allow competent terminally ill patients to request that their doctor prescribe them a lethal dose of medication.
Three states have these controversial laws, Washington, Oregon, and Vermont. The high court in Montana found that physicians can raise the defense that someone consented if brought to court –opening the door to euthanasia. Also, a judge in New Mexico has ruled that an assisted suicide is somehow medical treatment, creating confusion on the status of the law in that state. This decision is currently being appealed by Attorney General Gary King to the state Supreme Court.
Although advocates of these laws claim to merely be providing another option to a person with a tough diagnosis, the laws are riddled with legal problems. Time and time again their so-called safeguards ultimately have proven not to protect vulnerable groups including those suffering from mental illness, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. (More on how so-called safeguards do not work can be found at www.nrlc.org/uploads/medethics/WhySafeguardsDontWork.pdf)
However one important difference in the New Hampshire bill, and in many bills in other states, was the troubling definition of terminal illness. The bill defines “terminal condition” as an
“incurable and irreversible condition, for the end stage for which there is no known treatment which will alter its course to death, and which, in the opinion of the attending physician and consulting physician competent in that disease category, will result in premature death.”
What this really means is that people who could live indefinitely if provided life-preserving treatment, but who would die without it, could be deemed to fit the definition of “terminally ill.” For example, insulin-reliant diabetics who stop taking their medication could qualify for a lethal prescription.
Nor is there any requirement that a terminally ill individual’s death be imminent, or even near. Pro-death doctors could well argue that the decision shields them from being held accountable if they kill any patient with an illness that has a statistical chance of shortening life.
Although near-by neighbor Vermont became the first legislative body in the nation to legalize doctor prescribed suicide with their controversial Act 39, opponents of the bill are gearing up for another round of fights.
The Vermont Digger newspaper reported the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare held a joint press conference late last month with the Vermont Center for Independent Living calling for repeal of the narrowly passed Act 39.
The event featured a large banner outlining all the numerous flaws in the assisted-suicide law. Here are some of them.
For the first three years, the Vermont law grants doctors immunity from prosecution for providing a lethal dose of medication if they follow a loose list of rules, including making sure the patient is terminally ill and making a voluntary, informed decision. In 2016, that list of rules expires, with the hope that doctors will have established their own personal guidelines.
After the rules expire, the law protects physicians from civil or criminal liability, and from any sort of professional misconduct charges. The law will still require informed consent, mandating that doctors inform patients of “all feasible end-of-life services,” including palliative care and hospice. But it no longer mandates when or how doctors respond to requests, as long as “the patient makes an independent decision to self-administer a lethal dose of medication.”
Right now, the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare, which comprises health professionals and disability rights advocates, is asking the Governor and the Speaker of the Vermont House to place a moratorium on Act 39, effective immediately.
In addition, they are working on a campaign to garner grassroots support with an eye on a bill to repeal the measure in 2015. To date, thanks in part to legal unease on the part of the state’s hospitals (who employ nearly all of the state’s physicians), there have been no widely reported deaths from assisted suicide yet.
It is important that states are vigilant. No state is safe from this dangerous legislation that threatens the vulnerable.