By Chuck Missler
A Montana judge ruled last week that terminally ill residents of Montana have the right to physician-assisted suicide. After Washington State voters passed a law legalizing doctor-assisted suicide on November 4, 2008, “death with dignity” is stirring up embers across America.
It is easy to have compassion on a terminally ill patient in severe pain, especially if that person is a loved one, and to want that person’s suffering to be relieved. Yet, the innate value of human life is something that cannot be measured by subjective yardsticks of life's “quality.” To attempt to do so is very dangerous, as can be seen in the Netherlands and Belgium where physician-assisted suicide has descended into full on patient killing.
Oregon voters passed their Death with Dignity Act in 1994 and then approved it once again in 1997. Not content with just their own state, physician-assisted suicide advocates began pushing for other states to join them. There has been nation-wide resistance to allowing terminal patients to put themselves to death, however. Even those people who have no moral objection to the practice recognize the societal dangers of legalizing medical suicide.
Things have looked relatively calm in Oregon during the past decade-plus. Relatively few people have gone through the hoops to ask for a physician assisted suicide (PAS) prescription, and even fewer have actually used the drugs to end their lives. Oregon’s official records show that just 85 prescriptions were written in 2007, more than in any other year, and only 46 people took the drugs. Pro-assisted suicide groups with plenty of money have convinced Washington voters to pass a law almost identical to Oregon’s by 59 percent.
This is how the Washington PAS law works:
- Only people 18 or older can request a PAS prescription.
- Two doctors must confirm the patient is competent and not under coercion and has six months or less to live.
- The patient must give two oral and one written request for the terminal prescription. There must be 15 days between the first and second oral requests, as well as a 48-hour waiting period between the written request and the doctor’s giving the prescription.
- Two people need to witness the patient’s writing the request, and at least one of those people cannot be a relative or health care worker.
- The patient has to take the lethal dose without assistance.
The law also includes opt outs for any physicians or medical establishments that have moral/philosophical objections to writing lethal prescriptions. Nobody has to participate if they do not want to.
Cost-Benefit Analysis of Human Life
While death with dignity laws sound "reasonable" and well thought out, they still inherently devalue human life. They also cannot be proven free from abuse. Despite the claims that Oregon's experiment has been a success, serious problems have found a voice.
Barbara Wagner, a 64-year-old cancer patient was told her cancer had come out of remission, but a drug was available to slow the growth and lengthen her life. The state, though, decided she wasn’t worth the cost. She received a letter saying that the life-extending medication was too expensive, but the state Medicaid program would pay the much lower cost of “physician aid in dying." Once her story got out, others came forward saying they had received similar letters.
“They would pay to kill me, but they will not give me the medication to slow the growth of my cancer,” Wagner said in a video for the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide.
It’s A Control Issue
Another problem is that most people who take lethal drugs are not even in serious pain, according to Oregon’s own reports. The vast majority of patients using PAS prescriptions were concerned about loss of dignity, inability to participate in activities they enjoyed, and had a need to control the timing of their deaths (86%). Control issues and not wanting to depend on others led more people to end their lives early than did actual physical pain. It would be wiser to treat these patients for depression or encourage them than hand them lethal drugs to take.
Doctors all self-report on PAS issues in Oregon. Once they file their reports and Oregon issues its annual report, the individual doctors’ reports are destroyed. This means nobody can go back and do research to ensure proper oversight of this unorthodox medical practice. Once doctors write the prescription, they need not be present when patients take the medication – which means nothing prevents an impatient heir from putting the medication in Aunt Edna’s coffee. Nobody can know how many patients are truly coerced into suicide by relatives or by guilt or by the sense they are a burden. There is shockingly little oversight over PAS in Oregon, which means that the “no known abuse” statements are exactly that = nobody knows.
The Slippery Slope
If the rest of the country follows Oregon’s lead, it is an easy move farther down the same road. Why not help people die even if they are too far gone to take the medication themselves? Why should the terminally ill quadriplegic not be able to enjoy the right to self suicide? What about people in constant pain who are not terminally ill? Where does it end?
Washington’s new law goes into effect March 4 -- 120 days after the election. Montana’s battle is not over; the current case will likely continue on to the state supreme court.
A civil society should never condone suicide. Period. If people are in severe pain, the best thing we can do is ease their suffering, but in a way that recognizes the value of their lives, and does not purposely hasten their deaths.