Rhode Island Senate committee hears bills on assisted suicide, abortion

By Rick Snizek, Executive Editor, Rhode Island Catholic

PROVIDENCE — The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Monday on proposed legislation seeking to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Rhode Island and on four other abortion-related bills.

Both the Rhode Island Catholic Conference and Rhode Island Right to Life have expressed steadfast opposition to the assisted suicide legislation, Senate Bill No. 775. Known as the Lila Sapinsley Compassionate Care Act, the bill seeks to allow terminally ill patients to choose to end their lives by using drugs prescribed by a physician.

“The Church specifically opposes Physician-Assisted Suicide because it seeks to legalize the intentional taking of human life; this deliberate activity violates the most basic tenet of our belief in the sacredness of life, and simultaneously poses many dangers to vulnerable populations,” Father Bernard A. Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, said in his written testimony, urging the committee to reject the bill.

He noted that the Catholic Church teaches that physician-assisted suicide gravely violates the sacred value of all human life, particularly of those who are vulnerable due to illness, age or disability, and undermines the medical profession’s healing mission.

“A truly caring community devotes more attention and support to members facing the most vulnerable times in their lives; when the sick, elderly, and vulnerable are tempted to see their lives as less valuable, they most need the love and assistance of others to assure them of their worth,” Father Healey said.

Barth E. Bracy, director of Rhode Island Right to Life, said the bill contains many dangerous provisions, notably that the written request by a patient for a prescription of lethal drugs does not need to be made in the presence of a physician; it could be signed in the patient’s residence and mailed in.

Also, while the request must be signed by two witnesses, nothing in the bill prevents these individuals from being either a family member who could gain financially from the patient’s death or a friend of the other witness.

“This bill in no way prohibits family members, health care providers, or other interested parties, from suggesting, encouraging or exerting subtle pressure on vulnerable individuals to request assisted suicide,” Bracy said in his written testimony.

Bracy also expressed concern that the bill does not mandate an independent witness be present at the time of death. This would leave open the possibility that the patient may not have self-administered the lethal dose, meaning it could have been given to them while they were sleeping, for example.

“Was the prescription taken willingly, or did the patient struggle? Under this bill, nobody would ever know,” Bracy said.

He added that assisted suicide is not medicine. Rather, he defined it as bad public policy that puts unsuspecting people at risk.

“It is a recipe for abuse of the elderly and disabled, and for exploitation of any one of us who may have an estate coveted by others or who may be regarded as a burden,” he said.

Dr. Catherine Mosley, the immediate past chair of the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs of the American Medical Association (CEJA), which maintains the code of medical ethics, called in to the virtual hearing to offer her testimony against passage of Senate Bill 775.

Mosley said that in 2016, when the medical societies of Oregon and Washington State requested the AMA change its prohibition against physician-assisted suicide into one of neutrality, the nine CEJA members were equally divided in their vote to recommend this change.

“Despite our apparent differences of opinion, we decided not to change our stance,” she said.

“Regardless of our personal beliefs, we decided that physician-assisted suicide is ‘fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer; it would be difficult or impossible to control; and would pose serious societal risks.’”

The CEJA members arrived at the opinion by reviewing laws governing physician-assisted suicide throughout the United States. They found that all were fundamentally flawed with respect to screening and treatment requirements for mental illness, protection against coercion and standards for reporting to determine the prevalence of physician-assisted suicide.

“Internationally and in the United States, we found definition creep about determining terminal illness and age requirements,” she said, noting that throughout the U.S. there is inadequate funding and prevalence of hospice and palliative care.

The group found that there is also a paucity of mental health professionals to help guide individuals in making difficult end-of-life decisions and inadequate societal support for the disabled and their families.

“There is great public confusion about the differences between palliative care, hospice, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide,” she said, noting that legalizing physician-assisted suicide would also likely increase suspicion among minorities of healthcare in general.

Of the four abortion-related bills on the docket for consideration by the SJC, three are being supported by the Rhode Island Catholic Conference and Rhode Island Right to Life as common sense measures seeking to enhance legal protection for the preborn, while both pro-life organizations opposed Senate Bill 267, which seeks to provide for abortion coverage in the state’s Medicaid program, while repealing the abortion coverage exclusion currently in force for state employee insurance plans.

“The Rhode Island Catholic Conference opposes SB 267 because it would use taxpayer dollars for the objectionable practice of abortion which ends the life of an unborn human being. We advocate that the expenditure of these monies should, instead, be directed toward the goal of producing healthy birth outcomes and providing income security to decrease the perceived need for abortions,” Father Healey testified.

The Rhode Island Catholic Conference and Rhode Island Right to Life are strongly urging the passage of Senate Bills 645, 664 and 669.

Senate Bill 645 is an act relating to health and safety and requires facilities that provide abortions to be subject to license requirements of similar healthcare facilities. It also allows the Department of health to conduct unannounced inspections.

“It is a reasonable, just and equitable bill that treats abortion providers with oversight and inspection,” Father Healey said.

“History has taught us that such abortion mills can quickly become ‘houses of horror’ for the innocent unborn and their vulnerable mothers. The notorious Abortionist Kermit Gosnell, a serial killer, was convicted of murdering three infants who were born alive during attempted abortion procedures. His facility had seldom been inspected and it was a gruesome scene of body parts, aborted babies and debris. Why should abortion mills not be held accountable?”

Bracy, of RIRTL, said it is a sobering and lamentable fact that under the General Assembly, the preborn child in Rhode Island has less legal protection than domestic pets or livestock.

“If even legitimate health care facilities must comply with standards and inspections, abortion shops should not get a pass,” he said in supporting S-645.

Senate Bill 664, the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, provides for the duties and obligations of medical personnel in certain circumstances, including in the event an attempted abortion results in the birth of an infant. In such a case, the infant should be considered a legal person under the laws of the state, and would be entitled to protection and care.
“The Act reaffirms what should be obvious: Each infant who is fully born and shows signs of life must be recognized in law as a human person,” Father Healey said.

“With passage SB 664 makes clear that a child’s rights and dignity are inherent (and will be upheld at least outside the womb) and rejects the widespread assumption among abortion supporters that a child’s rights depend solely on whether she is wanted by her mother.”

Bracy testified that if a baby is born alive, surviving the abortionist’s attempt to kill her, she deserves the same legal protections and care as other babies born into this world.

Senate Bill 669 creates the Rhode Island Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would prohibit the performance or induction of an abortion of an unborn child capable of feeling pain, unless necessary to prevent serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother.

“If the preborn child is known to be physiologically capable of experiencing pain — which medical science has amply demonstrated — no humane society should sanction that child being ripped apart limb from limb,” Bracy said in supporting the bill.

All bills considered at the hearing were held for further study.