The Vermont Legislature is again considering physician-assisted suicide under the soothing name of “patient choice.” The editorial of Feb. 4 insists quite a bit on that word “choice,” but since the choice in question is suicide, the discussion needs to be focused on that.
People have always been free to commit suicide, but that is very different from having a legal right to do so. Legal rights are part of the social contract, aimed at maintaining the public good, and acts destructive of the person are not generally recognized as rights. Creating a legal right to suicide makes suicide a part of the public good. Can a compassionate society embrace this?
What Senate Bill 77 would create is physician-assisted suicide, endorsed and sponsored by the state. This is a dangerous idea: government telling citizens that their circumstances justify suicide and authorizing physicians to abet it.
The restriction on access to assisted suicide does not lessen the enormity of the gesture and does not lessen the general danger, because if your reason for suicide is good enough, then mine certainly is, and the law may not discriminate. To make any suicide a part of the public good unavoidably normalizes it, greatly weakening our suicide prevention programs.
How do we rekindle the will to live in a teenage victim of Internet bullying when she knows that easy suicide is legal?
There are dangers of a more practical nature. The link between assisted suicide and health care rationing cannot be hidden. It was evidenced in Oregon in 2008 in the twin cases of cancer patients Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroupe. They received similar letters from the Oregon Health Plan informing them that, while coverage for their treatment had been exhausted, coverage for assisted suicide was available.
Is this an example of the touted “patient choice”? (Both Wagner and Stroupe declined the offer.) Where is the compassion in a government health board suggesting suicide to people who haven’t requested it? Is this an example Vermont wants to follow?
The essential dishonesty of S.77 is grounds to defeat it: referring to a massive overdose of barbiturates as “a medication”; asserting that the “prescription” will merely “hasten” death, when it will be the actual cause of death; requiring the physician not to record the suicide on the death certificate, but to list the manner of death as “natural”; and insisting that “action taken in accordance with this chapter” (Read: ingesting a lethal overdose for the sole and express purpose of ending life) “shall not be construed for any purpose to constitute suicide.”
The editor dismisses the “slippery slope” theory, but experience shows otherwise. The Netherlands began as Vermont proposes to, but soon approved assisted suicide for depressed patients. Very recently eligibility was expanded to include two more conditions, “loneliness” and “fatigue.”
Closer to home, in Washington state, whose assisted-suicide law is only four years old, there is discussion of expanding eligibility to non-terminal patients and, incredibly, to incompetent patients who, back in their lucid days, wrote out an advance directive requesting death. Must they be held to a document drafted years earlier? Is that “patient choice”?
Statistical reports available from Washington and Oregon reveal that of the patients who committed physician-assisted suicide in the last year, only 25 percent listed “concern about pain control” as a factor in their decision. All patients listed “loss of autonomy” as the first factor. What does this tell us? The way of compassion lies, not in easy suicide, but in improved understanding of end-of-life care.
S.77 is the wrong approach. It represents a real threat to the most vulnerable members of society, and will harm many more people than it relieves. Let us defeat this bill and turn our energies to positive, loving solutions.
Grace Weber is a resident of Weybridge.
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