Former Gov. Booth Gardner, a Parkinson’s disease patient, hopes to place an initiative on the 2008 ballot to legalize assisted suicide in Washington. For the sake of Washington’s most weak and vulnerable people, he should reconsider.
Assisted suicide can be spun to sound reasonable in theory, but once the real-world context in which assisted suicide would be carried out is considered, it becomes clear that legalization would be bad medicine and worse public policy.
Consider the following. We are told by backers that assisted suicide should be restricted to cases of unbearable suffering. Yet, current legislation in California and Vermont to legalize assisted suicide 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 fear being a burden, can no longer engage in enjoyable activities, and/or fear losing dignity.
Don’t get me wrong: These are important issues that cry out for proper care. Thankfully, we have hospice care the true death with dignity to treat these needs. Indeed, studies show that when these problems are addressed, suicidal desires almost always disappear, even in people who are imminently dying.
That is true, assisted suicide proponents admit, but there will always be a few people who want assisted suicide anyway. But placing the law’s seal of approval on some suicides would send an insidious message to dying patients that they are burdens; that their illnesses do 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 once 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 deaths. Moreover, almost all of 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 six 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 cultural context in which assisted suicide would be conducted. Health services for the poor are being cut to the bone. The number of medically uninsured is at crisis stage and those with coverage usually are in health-maintenance organizations that 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 of cultural dysfunction would make assisted suicide especially dangerous.
People who are dying and disabled need love, inclusion and medical care that values their lives, not hastens their deaths. Washington voters know this. That is why they turned their backs on assisted suicide by a margin of 54 to 46 percent in 1991, and would be likely to do so again should the issue be placed on the state’s ballot.
Wesley J. Smith is 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. His Web site is www.wesleyjsmith.com