How Can a State with a Particularly Poor Record of Investigating Adult Abuse Complaints Even Consider Legalizing Assisted Suicide?

Editor’s note. This appears on the blog of “True Dignity Vermont: Vermont Citizens Against Assisted Suicide,” at http://truedignityvt.org/?p=268

According to an article posted at http://vtdigger.org/2011/08/07/abused-vulnerable-adults, ”The state is struggling to investigate complaints of elder abuse. A backlog of 261 cases remains open.” Some of these cases, according to the article, are more than six months old. Vermont is the slowest state in the nation to respond to reports of adult abuse. Furthermore, in 2009, only 8% of reports of abuse were substantiated, a suspiciously low number compared to the national average of 42%.

Most reports are filed by professionals like case workers, caregivers, and medical personnel. The article states that most abuse is perpetrated by people very close to the victim and is therefore shrouded in secrecy. Because of embarrassment or fear of losing the only human relationships he has, an abused person rarely reports this kind of abuse and may even conceal it.

If assisted suicide were to become legal in Vermont, a patient requesting the poison would have to see two doctors, both of them required to be willing to write a prescription for a lethal overdose and give instructions for using it to commit suicide. One wonders why the requirement is not, on the other hand, that the patient get a second opinion from a doctor unwilling to prescribe poison for any reason but willing to offer alternatives to suicide. Would two doctors biased towards assisted suicide be alert for signs that a patient was being neglected or pressured by someone to commit suicide? That someone could be an heir, or just an exhausted caregiver.

We know from this article that, even if someone suspected that a person diagnosed with a terminal illness was being pressured and even if that someone reported the pressure as abuse, it would take several months in Vermont for the abuse to be investigated, much longer than the national average of 29 days. In the life of a person supposed to only have six months, that is too long.  For a person requesting assistance in suicide, it could lead to a radical denial of choice in the timing and manner of the person’s death.

An administrator of True Dignity Vermont knows well from personal experience that an abused person concealing the abuse, perhaps not even recognizing that it is abuse, can appear perfectly competent to make decisions. Even if a nurse, for example, suspected pressure from an heir and reported it, such a patient could easily convince a doctor already enthusiastic about assisted suicide that he was making a rational decision to die. He could get and take the prescription while the investigation dragged on. There is nothing in the proposed Vermont law that mentions the possibility of such a conflict’s arising, nothing that requires the doctor to check whether there has been an abuse report or that requires delaying the prescription until an investigation can be completed.

Physician assisted suicide is a recipe for abuse. Vermont is a state that already has an abuse problem and a scandalously inadequate response to that problem. We cannot afford the risk of legalizing assisted suicide here.

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