By Wesley J. Smith
Assisted suicide supporters have filed SB128, a bill in the state California Senate to legalize doctor-prescribed death. Supporters justify the move by pointing to Oregon’s assisted-suicide experience that, they claim, has worked without a flaw.
But how would they know?
State oversight depends almost entirely on self-reporting by physicians, who are about as likely to tell the state that they broke the law as they are to tell the IRS they cheated on their taxes. Moreover, Oregon state officials admitted to a British House of Lords investigative committee considering legalization of assisted suicide, that Oregon’s oversight agency does not have the legal authority — or budget — to conduct independent inquiries even if a legal violation is uncovered.
Perhaps that is why Dr. Kathleen Foley and psychiatrist Herbert Hendin — a nationally known palliative care expert and a premier suicide prevention expert, respectively — concluded in their Michigan Law Review study that “the evidence strongly suggests” the Oregon law’s “safeguards are circumvented in ways that are harmful to patients.”
Meanwhile, data published by the Oregon Health Department shows that most requests for assisted suicide involve future fears about losing autonomy or the ability to engage in enjoyable activities and possible loss of dignity. These are important matters to be sure, but they don’t require lethal prescriptions to ameliorate.
Passing SB128 would dramatically increase California’s suicide rate. Last year, 105 Oregonians died by assisted suicide. California’s population is 10 times larger than Oregon’s (37.5 million versus only 3.8 million), meaning that perhaps 1,000 of us could die each year by doctor-prescribed death if the bill becomes law. If so, California’s suicide rate would increase from about 3,300 annually to 4,300, an upsurge of about one-third.
SB128 would hide that problem by requiring doctors to lie on death certificates. Under the bill, if a terminally ill patient takes a legally prescribed overdose, “The cause of death listed on an individual’s death certificate who uses aid-in-dying medication shall be the underlying terminal illness.” That’s not only a corruption of public records integrity, but would materially thwart the very transparency that advocates claim that their bill promotes.
Assisted-suicide apologists might say that the increased number of suicides wouldn’t matter because the people receiving the prescriptions would be dying anyway. But surely that doesn’t excuse falsifying public documents.
Moreover, by definition, those who died under the law would have passed later, but for taking the lethal drugs. Which raises another point: Legalizing doctor-prescribed death would mean that suicidal terminally ill patients would often be denied suicide-prevention services, currently a crucial aspect of hospice care.
Besides, a terminal diagnosis isn’t a guarantee one will die when predicted. Most of us know of people who were supposed to die within six months but lived for years. Humorist Art Buchwald is a notable example. He entered hospice for kidney failure, but rather than dying as expected, improved to the point that he left the program. He even lived long enough to write his last book — about the great value he received from his experience in hospice!
Assisted suicide is bad medicine and even worse public policy. The Legislature should reject hastened death and focus instead on assuring that every Californian has ready access to the best end-of-life care that medicine can provide.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant for the Patients Rights Council. This appeared at sfchronicle.com.