By Jennifer Popik, JD, Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics
On March 6, 2014, the New Hampshire House of Representatives resoundingly rejected bills that would have legalized assisting suicide. The most prominent of these, HB1325, was defeated with 66 votes in favor and 219 against. 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.
Meanwhile, New Mexico Attorney General Gary King is appealing to the state’s supreme court a lower court’s January 13, 2014 ruling declaring New Mexico’s law that protects against assisting suicide violates the state constitutional provision guaranteeing “rights of enjoying … life and liberty… and of seeking and obtaining safety and happiness” at least as applied to “a competent, terminally ill patient.”
At present, Washington, Oregon, and Vermont have explicitly legalized doctor-prescribed suicide by statute. In addition, Montana’s highest court held that physicians charged with homicide can raise the defense that the victim consented –opening the door to euthanasia.
HB1325 is nearly identical to the Oregon law which has been effect for over 15 years. Three states have these controversial laws, Washington, Oregon, and Vermont. The high court in Montana held that physicians charged with homicide can raise the defense that the victim consented t –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.
Like Oregon’s law, the New Hampshire bill attempted to authorize competent terminally ill patients to request their doctor prescribe them a lethal dose of medication. However one important difference in the New Hampshire bill, was its troubling definition of “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, fit the definition of “terminally ill.” For example, insulin-reliant diabetics who stop taking their medication could qualify for a lethal prescription.
There was no 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 New Hampshire’s nearby neighbor Vermont legalized doctor-prescribed suicide in 2013, opponents are gearing up to work for its repeal.
The Vermont Digger newspaper reported that on February 27, 2014 the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare held a joint press conference with the Vermont Center for Independent Living calling for a 2015 repeal of the narrowly passed law.
The event featured a large banner outlining a numerous flaws in the assisted-suicide law. 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 will no longer regulate when or how doctors respond to requests, as long as “the patient makes an independent decision to self-administer a lethal dose of medication.”
To date, however, 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 in Vermont, and the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare is urging a moratorium on implementing the law.