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Assisting suicides is bad law, policy

Sacramento is considering creating an Oregon-style system to end lives Original Article

Advocates of assisted suicide label hastened death a “compassionate choice.” But such gooey euphemisms seek to hide the harsh truth: Assisted suicide isn’t about caring: It is about the intentional ending of human life – an act barred by the Hippocratic Oath for more than 2000 years.

We are told that assisted suicide would be restricted to cases of unbearable suffering. Yet, legislation in California to legalize assisted suicide – AB651 by Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka – contains no such requirement. Nor does the law in Oregon, where doctors who assist suicides report that most patients do not seek death because of pain, but because they can no longer engage in enjoyable activities, fear losing dignity or are worried about becoming burdens.

Don’t get me wrong: These are important issues that cry out for proper care. Thankfully, we have hospice – true death with dignity – to treat these needs. Indeed, studies show that when these problems are addressed, suicidal desires almost always disappear.

While acknowledging the truth of the previous sentence, assisted-suicide proponents contend there will always be a few people who want assisted suicide, anyway. But placing California’s seal of approval on some suicides would send an insidious message to dying patients that they are burdens; that their illness does make them less worthy of being loved; that they will die in agony. And it would signal the broader society, including young people, that suicide is right in some cases.

Legalizing assisted suicide would also be very risky. The Netherlands proves that when mercy killing is allowed for the few, it steadily spreads. In the past 30 years, Dutch doctors have gone from killing the terminally ill, to the disabled, and even to the depressed who aren’t physically sick. Recent headlines report that infanticide of dying and disabled babies will soon be legalized by the Dutch Parliament.

Assisted-suicide boosters claim it would be different here and point to Oregon to show that there is no “slippery slope.” But nobody knows what is actually going on in Oregon. The state conducts no independent reviews of assisted suicide, for example, to ensure that only dying patients receive lethal prescriptions. Moreover, almost all the published data about Oregon cited by advocates are based primarily on information provided by death-prescribing doctors – who are as likely to report violating the law as they are to tell the IRS that they cheated on their taxes.

Still, abuses have been revealed. In the only case in which the medical records of a potential assisted suicide were independently reviewed, a peer-reviewed report in the Journal of the American Psychiatric Association disclosed that the patient received a lethal prescription almost two years before he died naturally. Yet, Oregon law requires that the patient be likely to die within 6 months. Not only that, but the patient was permitted to keep his pills even after being hospitalized as delusional. In another case reported in the Oregonian, a woman with Alzheimer’s disease and cancer received assisted suicide even after a psychiatrist reported that she didn’t know what she was asking for and that her daughter was the driving force behind the request.

We must also take heed of the real world in which assisted suicide would exist. California health services for the poor are being cut to the bone. The number of medically uninsured Californians exceeds the entire population of Oregon, and many people with insurance are in HMOs, which make profits by limiting costs. The drugs used in an assisted suicide would cost less than $100. Yet, it could cost $100,000 to provide quality care so the patient doesn’t want suicide.

Then, there are issues of inheritance and life insurance. Elder abuse and neglect are terrible concerns. These and other problems make assisted suicide especially dangerous.

People who are dying need love, inclusion, and medical care that values their lives, not hastens their deaths. Legalizing assisted suicide in California would be bad medicine and even worse public policy.

Wesley J. Smith is a Bay Area author, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a lawyer for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.