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Physician-Assisted Suicide

Let’s say a close friend of yours is really sick. According to doctors and specialists, your friend has about a 20% chance of living through the next year. Your friend is in incredible pain around the clock. Now, what if your friend was so desperate and had lost so much hope that he wanted to die? What if your friend asked you to help him die? What would you do? Would you help relieve your friend’s pain by helping to kill him?

The idea of killing a close friend or family member sounds ridiculous, but it happens. It’s called assisted suicide, or euthanasia. And it’s legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. What’s even more disturbing is that there are cases reported from all over the country.

From 1988 onward: The media (from medical journals to popular magazines, newspapers and books; from public radio and TV to sitcoms and movies) give increasingly favorable treatment to assisted suicide and euthanasia.

EXAMPLE: NBC Correspondent Betty Rollin helped her mother, who had cancer, commit suicide in 1983. She wrote a book about it called Last Wish, which was made into a movie that aired on ABC in January 1992. “I HELPED MY MOTHER TO DIE” was the headline on the front cover of People magazine, Jan. 20, 1992. “I have no regrets,” Betty said. “This is what she wanted.”

1994: The Oregon “Death With Dignity” (death-on-demand) Act was narrowly approved by voters. Legal challenges ensued, blocking it from taking effect until 1997.

View the Oregon law in-depth

1998: The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the right of states to prohibit PAS, overturning two lower-court rulings. Compassion in Dying had initiated these challenges to laws prohibiting PAS in WA and NY.

2005: Compassion & Choices (C&C) was established through the unification of two Hemlock Society organizations: Compassion In Dying (Portland) and End-of-Life Choices (Denver). C&C maintains headquarters in both cities. C&C has helped facilitate about 75% of all PAS deaths in Oregon. It has become the leading national organization promoting PAS.

2007: On June 1, Jack Kevorkian (“Dr. Death”) was paroled early for “good behavior” after serving only eight years of his 10-25 year sentence. He assured the parole board that he would not kill again, but told the Los Angeles Times that he “would do whatever my health permits regarding petitions, speeches, lobbying and writing in support of legalization” of PAS.

The future: PAS activists are targeting more states for assisted-suicide bills.

FALSE ADVERTISING: PAS activists will use deceptive language like “aid-in-dying,” “physician-assisted death,” “death with dignity,” or “compassionate choices.” They blame their failures on the media for using the “inflammatory” word “suicide” to describe their bills. Their polling data reveal that the “s” word simply doesn’t sell.

Arguments Pro and Con

Pro: Oregon’s multi-year experience with legalized physician-assisted death—not suicide—should reassure people that abuses have not occurred in Oregon. C&C President Barbara Coombs Lee told reporters, “The practice has settled into a nice, safe, conservative practice.” (AP, 3/8/07)

Con: Oregon’s annual PAS reports do not prove that abuses have not occurred. They are based solely on reports by the doctors who prescribed the lethal drugs. The law gives no authorization to investigate unreported cases or cases of abuse and contains no penalties for doctors who do not comply with the law. Doctors who violate the law are not likely to tell on themselves.

Pro: The law’s safeguards work.

Con: The “safeguards” were included only to get the bill passed. They do not provide any real protection for patients.

The law requires that the patient have a “terminal disease” that is expected to “produce death within six months.” Predictions of life-expectancy are highly unreliable. Isn’t it probable that some patients who kill themselves would live longer than six months if they didn’t take the pills? Might some physicians “help” non-terminally ill patients commit suicide?

The law requires that the patient must be “acting voluntarily, and is not being coerced to sign the request.” In 2006, British palliative care expert Dr. David Jeffrey, during the course of conducting research (D. Jeffrey, “Physician-Assisted Suicide v. Palliative Care: A Tale of Two Cities,” 2006; uncovered a number of disturbing unreported PAS cases in Oregon, including:

A patient was told by his doctor, “You have ALS [Lou Gehrig’s disease]. . . . This is awful. . . . You should consider PAS.” The patient was “devastated.”

A patient with cancer was told by a doctor that “it was going to be a painful way to die and advised him to take advantage of the PAS law.” The patient took the lethal drugs, but didn’t die quickly. His wife couldn’t handle the situation, so a pro-PAS organization found two men to sit with the patient until he died the next morning. The wife became profoundly depressed and attempted to commit suicide herself.

How voluntary is assisted suicide when you are not offered hope or other options?

Pro: People who are terminally ill should not be forced to suffer unbearable pain. They should have the right to choose to end it.

Con: This is a false argument for two reasons:

Advances in pain management assure that ALL pain can be managed by using commonly available medications and/or a combination of approaches—radiation therapy, nerve block, physical therapy, etc. The problem is that not all patients are given effective treatment for pain. Voters should demand that physicians learn how to effectively kill pain, not effectively kill patients.

Oregon’s law does not require that a patient be in pain or even suffering to be given a prescription for lethal drugs. In fact, doctors who have assisted suicides report that most patients did not seek PAS because of pain, but because they feared being a burden, being unable to engage in enjoyable activities, and other non-pain-related concerns.

Legalized PAS sends the message, “If you can’t deal with your pain or problems, go ahead and kill yourself. The state will even pay for it.” And Oregon does pay for PAS as a “comfort care” measure.

COST-CONTROL is a major factor in healthcare today. PAS costs very little—at most, $100 for the drugs. Compare that to perhaps $100,000 to care for a patient who may have up to six months (or even more) to live. Death is cheap. But what is a human life worth?

The legalization of PAS threatens the lives of our most vulnerable citizens at the most vulnerable times of their lives. They need to receive excellent care, not a right to choose to die. Individuals who are distressed, depressed, sick, tired, and vulnerable are already fighting an uphill battle. Will they have the strength to resist assisted suicide?

Every suicide, and especially an assisted suicide, represents a failure of the human community to affirm the value of a person’s life.

Bottom line: Legalizing physician-assisted suicide does not change a crime into a medical treatment; rather, it turns the law into an accessory to murder.