Legislation that looks to make doctor-assisted suicide legal is crossing the desks of lawmakers all across the country. One such bill before the Colorado’s House of Representatives, HB 1135, was defeated in committee on Feb. 6 by an 8-5 vote after 11 hours of testimony and 125 witnesses.
Some tearful legislators said in closing remarks that they attributed their “no” votes to personal experience with terminal decisions, either made on their behalf or that of family members.
“There is absolute dignity in fighting (for life),” said Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, after the vote. “It shows bravery; it shows heart ... For people to say there’s no dignity in it, I just don’t know how they can say that.”
Conti was among legislators who questioned the bill and voted “no,” saying her own sister fought for her life to the end. Similar legislation is up for consideration in at least 14 other states, lawmakers said.
The bill was much inspired by a letter to a Denver Post columnist from a reader who wrote about a loved one’s suffering near the end of their life. It was also backed by the organization Compassion and Care, which is attempting to get similar legislation passed in many other states after Brittany Maynard’s high-profile decision to end her life in Oregon in November via doctor-assisted suicide.
A shift in focus
Physician-assisted suicide is fast becoming a major moral issue of our time. Already rampantly available in Europe, a “right to die” bill was unanimously approved by Canada’s high court in early February.
Wesley J. Smith, a lawyer and lecturer who was named in 2008 by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against assisted suicide, spoke Feb. 4 at the University of Colorado-Boulder during the eighth annual Great Debate, “The End of Suffering: A Debate on Assisted Suicide,” during which he debated with Michael Tooley of the university’s School of Philosophy. The debate was sponsored by the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought, the intellectual outreach of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center at the university.
He noted that he doesn’t bring religion into his debate against doctor-assisted suicide.
“I don’t think it is a religious issue,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “It is a public policy issue. Indeed, the disability rights community, which is overwhelmingly secular, are the nation’s best opponents of legalizing assisted suicide, as members of that community’s testimony ... in the Colorado Legislature demonstrated.”
Smith, who has worked against assisted suicide and euthanasia since 1994, said the discussion is about different value systems.
“We are turning into a nation and to a society of the Western culture that is moving away ... from the primary good being the protection of all human life, from the primary good being the equality of all human life — something we’ve been struggling for in the West for hundreds of years — to the primary purpose of society (being) to prevent and eliminate suffering, Smith said. “And of course, you can’t eliminate suffering. ... But if the purpose of society is to eliminate suffering as we see tonight, that quickly morphs into eliminating the sufferer. If you eliminate the sufferer, that isn’t only what happens. The concept of what constitutes suffering also becomes very elastic. Society has to decide which value system it’s going to pursue.”
Doctor-assisted suicide is legal in Washington, Oregon and Vermont and pending in court cases in Montana and New Mexico, according to Jennifer Kraska, executive director of Colorado Catholic Conference. The State of Washington’s legislation on physician-assisted suicide passed via ballot initiative. It’s something officials from the Archdiocese of Seattle said has been nothing but a nightmare of uncertainty.
“The systems being proposed are seriously flawed,” said Greg Magnoni, director of communications for the Seattle diocese. “There’s actually no way of knowing whether abuses occur because the reporting is so inadequate.
“In our experience of this here in Washington State, there’s no requirement for mental health evaluations, it doesn’t require family notification and doctors are prohibited from listing assisted-suicide as a cause of death,” Magnoni added. “It is a huge concern. It’s one that people considering assisted suicide should take very seriously. You don’t have to hold our teaching or our faith in order to consider that. A person of faith or no faith should be very careful about legalizing a law that passes assisted suicide.”
The most cited information at the Colorado’s House committee hearing was Oregon’s passage of the law.
Smith highlighted that in Oregon, where assisted-suicide has been legal since 1997, Medicaid in 2008 would not pay for cancer patients’ chemotherapy, “but they assured these two people that they would pay for their assisted suicides.”
Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland, Oregon, issued a statement in October, saying:
“Assisted suicide offers the illusion that we can control death by putting it on our own terms. It suggests that there is freedom in being able to choose death, but it fails to recognize the contradiction. Killing oneself eliminates the freedom enjoyed in earthly life. True autonomy and true freedom come only when we accept death as a force beyond our control. Our lives and our deaths belong in the hands of God who created and sustains us. Through the suffering, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus, we know that death is not the final word. Eternal life awaits all those who entrust themselves to God.”
Smith said the push to legalize assisted suicide is worse in Europe, opening a Pandora’s Box.
“In Belgium, they’re now euthanizing elderly couples who don’t want to be living,” Smith said. “In the Netherlands, the psychiatrists are now euthanizing mentally ill people. Why would that be? Because it’s not about terminal illness. If the idea is to eliminate suffering, and killing is an acceptable way to eliminate suffering, then how do you limit it to the terminally ill? That’s the logic of assisted suicide.”
Dr. Bill Bolthouse, a physician in Colorado, testified before the committee in Denver. “We are judged as a society on how we respond to the needs of the weakest among us,” Bolthouse said in his testimony. “In this debate, the fences are the ethical boundaries we have erected over the centuries, and especially in the latest decades as medical technology continues to advance. This bill opens a breach in those fences into a vast ethical wasteland that says, ‘not every life is worth living.’ While some say that statement honors the principle of autonomy, it does so at great cost ...
“Physician-prescribed suicide is expedient: It is quick, and it is cheap,” Bolthouse added. “Do we want a society where the hard work of caring for the dying is tempted by what is expedient?”
Anna Maria Basquez writes from Colorado.
|By the Numbers
|According to Oregon’s 2013 report on the state’s “Death with Dignity Act,” since the law was enacted in 1997, 1,173 people have been prescribed death-inducing medication and 752 people have died from ingesting medications prescribed under the law. As the chart shows, the number of prescriptions continue to rise.