By Jennifer Popik, JD, Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics
While California’s Senate has voted in favor of a dangerous doctor-prescribed suicide bill and the state Assembly is preparing to consider it in committee hearings, Maine has become the most recent state to defeat similar legislation. This comes amid a wave of assisting suicide laws that have been introduced all across the U.S.
The Maine Senate defeated assisting suicide bill LD 1270 by a vote of 18 – 17 after the House had approved the measure with a 76-70 vote. Despite this exceptionally close vote, the bill cannot be brought up again until 2017 because Maine has a two-year legislative session.
A diverse and large assortment of groups including disability rights groups, medical groups, the state medical society, and right to life groups worked hard raising the red flag regarding the many dangers this kind of legislation poses.
Compassion and Choices (formerly the Hemlock Society) is the main national euthanasia activist organization behind these bills. It has a large infusion of money, and is hard at work promoting laws that allow people to request lethal prescriptions from doctors. These laws begin with so-called safeguards that the organization eventually intends to move away from. More on this can be found in an article titled, “The Disturbing End Game of Organization Pushing Assisting Suicide”
Now that we are at or nearing the end of many state legislative sessions, there is good news, bad news, and some misleading news.
Most of the bills introduced to legalize assisting suicide (in over half of the states) have fallen one by one, thanks to hard work from disability rights groups, virtually every state medical society, right to life groups, and others. Delaware, Rhode Island and Connecticut were the most recent states to retire these bills- again relying a broad base of opposition. Over half of states has seen bills this term, and only a small handful are still active (California and DC among the most imminent).
Further, the deadly practice is still only legal in small handful of states (three have laws on the books, and Montana courts have found nothing in its law to prohibit the practice). In New Mexico, a court decision overturning that state’s decade-old protective law is currently being appealed.
The Bad News
While state after state is rejecting this dangerous legislation, the California Senate has cleared the bill and it has now moved on to the state’s lower house. In fact, the Assembly will commence the first of several hearings in the Health Committee on June 23. If you are a California resident, there are several things that can be done now to help turn the tide against assisting suicide in your state.
1. Send a personal email to Governor Jerry Brown and your State Assembly member. 2. Call your State Assembly member at 916.319.20, then your Assembly District number which can be found at: findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov 3. If at all possible, attend the June 23 hearing in person.
Whether you live in California or another state that may be considering this legislation, it is key to let your legislators know that killing the patient must never be condoned as a reasonable solution to human problems.
Importantly, in the states where this is law, the law is being misrepresented and abused.
First, there is nothing in existing Oregon, Washington, or Vermont law that requires doctors to refer patients for evaluation by a psychologist or psychiatrist to screen for depression or mental illness. There is also no such requirement in any current proposal in any state.
The doctors can make a referral, but nearly never do. In fact, according to the Oregon’s official state reports, in 17 years of legalized doctor-prescribed suicide, a mere 5.5% of death candidates have been referred for psychological evaluation.
According to state-issued reports in Oregon, we know that people receive lethal prescriptions and long outlive their prognosis. Further, the law has been made to apply to people whom no one would think of as terminally ill such as diabetics, those with HIV, or those with hepatitis simply because they would die without treatment in six months—even though with treatment they could live much longer, even indefinitely. Assisting suicide legalization has led people to give up on treatment and unnecessarily lose years of their lives. And recently, an older woman with no terminal illness living under the most recently enacted Vermont law was given assisted suicide as an option.
While abuses ranging from a patient with dementia receiving a lethal dose, to numerous non-terminally ill people getting prescriptions, to pressure from the state health plans to use the cheaper suicide option in place of life-saving treatment have been documented and exposed, the real depth of abuses is difficult to know.
These laws rely on doctors to self-report. However, there is no penalty if they do not report statistics and complications. Furthermore, doctors are not held to the ordinary standard of medical malpractice in implementing the “safeguards,” but a far lower one. Under Oregon law, the death certificate is actually falsified so that it lists some other condition, not suicide, as the cause of death.
And much to the dismay of many families who found this out too late, the law does not require families to be notified of a patient’s suicidal intent. These laws open a Pandora’s Box, and do nothing to prevent people from improper treatment and improper pain management at the end of their life. You can find more about these abuses here.
Finally, there is the misconception that these laws have big public support. A Gallup poll released May 27, 2015, at first blush indicates more Americans support physician-assisted suicide now than ever. Based on favorable wording, the poll found 68 percent of Americans believe physicians should be allowed to assist in a suicide. This was an increase of 10 percentage points from the same polling in the previous year.
However, on the eve of a very hotly contested ballot initiative question from the 2012 high-turnout presidential election in Massachusetts, voters ultimately rejected legalizing doctor-prescribed suicide despite similar polling margins. At the time, according to a University of Massachusetts poll, 65% of the registered voters said they would vote yes on the so-called “Death with Dignity” initiative. This matched a poll conducted by the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire that found 68% of likely voters would vote yes.
However, the trend is and has been that people turn against these laws they formerly believed they might support once the public and legislators are alerted to 1) the dangerousness of these laws to vulnerable groups, 2) the failure of these laws to address palliative care, and 3) the pressures that have been put on patients to “choose” this inexpensive suicide option.
It is more important now than ever to look for and stop the spread of these dangerous laws in your state. Chances are, some sort of legislation may be moving in your state; even if no longer a threat this year, the groundwork is likely being laid to promote it in the future. California and DC are the most immediate targets, but there are many others that will ultimately be in the crosshairs.
Killing the patient must never be condoned as a reasonable solution to human problems!