By Jennifer Popik, JD, Legislative Counsel, Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics
While the country and the 50 states are largely focused on the economy, jobs, and budgets, assisted suicide advocates, namely Compassion and Choices, have been hard at work seeking to legalize or expand physician-assisted suicide.
Assisted suicide is currently legal in two states– Oregon and Washington–and may have some legal protection in the state of Montana, because of a court decision. While doctor-prescribed death is legal in only these two Northwest states, assisted suicide advocates have announced they plan on getting a foothold in the Northeast: in Vermont and Massachusetts.
Should they succeed, momentum could leave many other New England states vulnerable.
And it is no accident that advocates of doctor-prescribed death are seeking to further weaken one so-called “safeguard” in Oregon.
Major Push in New England
In Massachusetts, there is a two-front risk of legalization of assisted suicide. On September 7th, the Attorney General’s Office produced a summary for voters and certified a proposal to the ballot. Proponents must now gather and file the signatures of 68,911 registered voters by December 7, 2011.
If they get the requisite number, the proposal would first be sent to the state Legislature before the first Wednesday in May 2012. The Massachusetts Legislature can either pass it directly into law, or do nothing.
If the Legislature does not enact the proposal into law, proponents get a second bite at the poisoned apple. If they can gather an additional 11,485 signatures from registered voters by early July 2012, they can have the measure placed on the November 2012 ballot. The well-funded Compassion and Choices is trying to raise money in an effort to gather the necessary signatures; they have used paid signature-gatherers in the past.
In nearby Vermont, Gov. Pete Shumlin (D) was narrowly elected in 2010. Throughout the gubernatorial campaign, he made his intentions unmistakably clear: he repeatedly promised that he would make it a priority to sign an assisted suicide bill into law.
A bill modeled on Oregon’s law was introduced in the legislature. Despite the fact that powerful forces aligned in favor of passage of doctor-prescribed death, the legislation was not considered, thanks primarily to the resistance of the disability-rights community.
However, after the 2011 legislative session ended, Shumlin renewed his promise to help legalize assisted suicide. He indicated that he will work on it next year. Vermont‘s assisted suicide advocates are no doubt well-funded, and motivated.
Expanding Doctor-Prescribed Death in Oregon
In addition, Compassion and Choices has recently announced that they are launching a lobbying effort in the state of Oregon aimed at removing the state’s already inadequate reporting requirements.
Under current Oregon law, the state produced sparse reports that show such basics as how many were prescribed lethal drugs; if there were complications; and how long they held on to the lethal drugs before the patient took them. The underlying data is not available for the public to view, kept by the Oregon Health Department for one year, and then destroyed.
Opponents of assisted suicide have long sought to highlight that assisted suicide advocates have a broader agenda, one they often reveal. If the reporting requirement is eliminated it would mean that the doctors who prescribe lethal prescriptions, who already face very few consequences for misconduct, would face even less scrutiny.
Compassion and Choices, with a goal of radical “autonomy,” has adopted the strategy of legalizing assisted suicide with so-called “safeguards,” and then work to erode them over time. For one such example, after the court decisions in Montana, Compassion and Choices issued a factsheet for legislators that said, “The Legislature should affirm the Court’s guidelines, and not place obstacles in patients’ way. The Legislature should affirm that physician participation is voluntary, and enact protections from civil liability and professional sanctions for physicians who practice within the court’s guidelines.”
But the court, while setting a few vague boundaries, never actually issued guidelines. Compassion and Choices does not really advocate for guidelines, so much as employ them to give voters and legislators a false sense of security that people will not be abused under these laws.
While assisted suicide is often promoted as a “personal decisions” in the hands of the individual, there has been story after story of the government steering patients to inexpensive suicide drugs. The most well known cases involve Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup, both of whom wanted treatment, but were initially denied, and sent letters reminding them of their right to assisted suicide.
More than this, there are dangerous loopholes in Oregon’s and Washington’s laws. Death certificates are falsified, listing an underlying condition as the cause of death, not suicide. The effect is it can hide the real number of suicides.
Heirs can serve as witnesses to requests. With no witness at the time of death, how can anyone be sure if the person (if they are even personally taking the drugs) is in any position to make decisions with lethal consequences? And the slipover impact should not be missed. Sadly, in 2010, Oregon’s rising suicide rate was a whopping 35% higher than the national average.
In a world where financial concerns and feelings of being a “burden” run rampant, state-sanctioned suicide is the worst kind of message to send. Life at any age is precious, and the true compassionate response would never to be to hand you a lethal prescription.
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