Physician-Assisted Suicide: Legislatures Should Take Action

By: Karli Cozen

When a terminally-ill person with only a few months to live is experiencing great pain and suffering, shouldn’t the law empower them to end that suffering and die on their own terms?

The Supreme Court addressed the issue of physician-assisted suicide in Washington v. Glucksberg. In this 1997 case, the Supreme Court recognized that there is no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide, but left the door open for state legislatures to enact laws on this matter.

Since that time, five states including Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana, and California, have passed “aid-in-dying” laws which permit physicians to help terminally ill patients end their lives under certain conditions. Additionally, countries around the world such as Canada and the Netherlands have legalized physician assisted death.

Most recently, the California End of Life Option Act went into effect on June 9, 2016. This law allows California residents over the age of eighteen who have a terminal illness with less than six months to live to request to their attending physician a prescription for an “aid in dying drug.” To be eligible under this act, the patient must be competent to make medical decisions for themselves and must be able to self-administer the medication.

Proponents of such bills argue that terminally-ill patients should have the right to end their pain and suffering and terminate their lives. People should have the autonomy to make a choice and to die with dignity.

Others view physician-assisted suicide in a negative light, stressing the physician’s oath to do no harm. Additionally, opponents fear that allowing physician-assisted death is a “slippery slope.” Outside pressures, may even compel vulnerable patients to choose physician-assisted suicide. In one instance, an insurance company denied coverage to a terminally ill woman, but offered payment for physician-assisted suicide. Additionally, over time, the requirement for physician assisted suicide may become less-stringent and more prone to abuse. Also, allowing physician-assisted suicide may change family relationships and society’s view of those with disabilities.

Legislatures today are confronted with the tough choice of whether to adopt such legislation. For instance, on Thursday, October 20, 2016, the New Jersey Assembly voted to approve the proposed “Aid in Dying Bill.” The bill must now pass through the Senate and gain approval by Governor Chris Christie before becoming law, but has the potential to make New Jersey the sixth state with an act permitting terminally ill patients to end their lives.

Both New Jersey and other states should enact laws allowing physician-assisted suicide for terminally-ill patients, with short prognoses, especially if they are suffering from pain. The alternative seems merciless and cruel.

People in this position are suffering and have been beaten down by a disease. They deserve to be empowered to end their lives on their own terms, empowered to beat the disease before it beats them, and empowered to die with dignity. Statutes can be carefully crafted to prevent abuse. For example, laws could ensure that the request for physician-assistance is truly voluntary, mandate that no statutes allow physician-assisted suicide for a prognosis of over six months or a prognosis with even a small chance of recovery, and ensure patients fully understand all pain management options. Without such statutes, however, patients die as victims of both a disease and the legislature, victimized by the inability to take control of their lives, in death, and to end their suffering on their own terms.