The threat of physician-assisted suicide

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Nick Harmon
Contributing Writer

According to the Patient Rights Council, since 1994 there have been over 100 legislative attempts in the United States to legalize physician-assisted suicide.  Today the main promoter of legalizing assisted suicide, Compassion and Choices, has continued fighting to decriminalize assisted suicide across the country.  Formerly known as the Hemlock Society, the well-funded Compassion and Choices group helped legalize assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington and is currently pushing for it in Montana, Vermont and Massachusetts.  The “Death with Dignity Act” lets doctors prescribe to consenting, terminally ill patients “medication to end their lives.”  Many Americans are unfamiliar with the issue of assisted suicide and are easily misled by arguments in favor of it.  Don’t be caught off guard.  “Death with Dignity” is a dangerous measure that is not about compassion, or choice.

Supporters of physician-assisted suicide redefine suicide as “Death with Dignity.” They argue that a terminally ill patient has a right “to end his or her life in a humane and dignified manner.”  This argument suggests human dignity can be lost depending on circumstances.  It rejects the principle that life is inherently dignified.  We as a society should not tie human dignity to a “high quality life,” which is lost with a sickness that causes suffering or a loss of autonomy.  When someone feels like they have lost their dignity, we should offer them a better alternative than suicide.

Is it good for the state to determine which lives are dignified and worth protecting and which lives are not dignified and not worth protecting?  Is the state competent to make those determinations?  In a passionate plea against assisted suicide, John Peyton, a man dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease and a Washington state resident, said in an interview on Fox News, “I don’t know how we as a society can really consider making doctors into killers […] Rather than giving people the temptation to kill themselves, we should be trying to figure out how to give them” love and support.

When government repeals suicide laws, even only for terminally ill patients, it is sending the message that there are some circumstances when life becomes so unbearable that suicide is preferable to living.  Imagine what kind of effect this has on people contemplating suicide, especially teens.  In Oregon, the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide in 1994, the suicide rates have been rising dramatically.  According to a study done by the Oregon State Department of Health, Oregon’s suicide rate is 35 percent higher than the national average, and suicide is now the leading cause of injury-death in Oregon, beating out automobile accidents.

Legalizing assisted suicide unintentionally puts pressure on terminally ill patients to die.  Terminally ill patients require many months of care, sometimes years, often at a very high cost to their family, doctors and insurance providers.  With assisted suicide, all these groups have financial incentives to pressure terminally ill patients to commit suicide.  In Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal since 1994, Barbara Wagner, a woman suffering from lung cancer, received a letter from her state-run Oregon Health Plan that their policy would not cover the cost of her expensive cancer treatment, but would cover “medication” that would kill her.

With these financial incentives, do people like Wagner have a right to die, or a duty to die?  What is to stop heirs from pressuring wealthy relatives to commit suicide?  In Washington and Oregon’s annual “Death with Dignity” reports, almost all the patients who committed suicide had at least middle class incomes.

How can the terminally ill trust their heirs and caregivers with such twisted financial incentives?  Society should offer the sick real medical care, not phony compassion.  We are tempted to consider assisted suicide because it is the cheapest and easiest way to deal with the dying.  It is a failure on the part of society to help the vulnerable.  Almost anything else would be preferable.

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