Too Few States Allow Medical Aid In Dying

Too Few States Allow Medical Aid In Dying

Alexis ChapmanFriday,20 May 2016

On May 10 New York legislators introduced a bill to legalize medical aid-in-dying. Similar legislation is being considered in other states and earlier this year California became the fifth state to legalize the practice, which allows doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients if certain specific criteria are met. The California law faced stiff opposition during regular session and both the law and the start date of June 9 had to be passed during special sessions.

Oregon was the first state to legalize the practice in 1997 and they created a set of very specific rules and criteria to ensure that the option is only used sparingly, responsibly, and as a last resort, and states that have legalized it since have used these as a guide. Medication is only available to mentally competent adults who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months. A patient has to request the medication twice verbally and once in writing with waiting periods in between and afterwards, the physician must inform the patient about alternatives, and two doctors must approve the request before the patient can be given the prescription for lethal medication. At any point in the process the patient can of course stop or rescind their request and once the prescription is filled it is in the patient’s control when or if they use it. The practice has been studied fairly extensively in Oregon in the 19 years since it was legalized and the data seems to suggest that the law is working as intended. So it’s somewhat surprising that after so long so few other states have legalized this practice and that there is still such strong opposition in the states when these laws come up.

Medical aid-in-dying used to be referred to as “physician assisted suicide,” which explains some of the opposition. A lot of people in the U.S., I would even dare to say most people, are understandably opposed to suicide (though our national opposition hasn’t seemed to prompt us to address the staggeringly high risk of suicide for certain groups such as transgender people or military personnel). Medical aid-in-dying may meet some technical definition of suicide but we should be able to easily differentiate between the tragedy of a person committing suicide, which involves unnecessarily ending a life, and the humane practice of enabling a person with a terminal illness to have some measure of comfort and control over their death.

Unfortunately, is seems that some people cannot see that difference and have taken it upon themselves to try and block this legislation when it comes up. These groups provide some fascinating and bizarre arguments hinting at a dystopian future where patients are forced to end their life by the evil health care system or family members. They don’t seem to offer any hard facts supporting their opposition but they make up for it with a heavy dose of religious dogma. The counters to the religious objections to medical aid-in-dying are pretty straightforward: not all religious people agree that the practice is prohibited by their religion(s); patients, doctors, or even entire hospitals that have religious objections to the practice don’t have to participate; and last but not least this a secular country where we don’t let some people’s religious beliefs dictate laws. Religious beliefs may certainly be a reason for an individual to choose to wait out a terminal illness rather than seek medical aid at the end of their life, but religion cannot be a reason to deprive others of that choice. As medical aid-in-dying laws are being considered in the U.S. and elsewhere, we have an opportunity to make sure that people with terminal illnesses have access to the same things we all want if and when we end up in the health care system: comfort, options, and control over our treatment.

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Image Credit: Alberto Biscalchin

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