Just two years ago, Canada’s Supreme Court decriminalized physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia in its decision in Carter v. Canada. In that February 6, 2015, ruling, the Court allotted a one-year window to Parliament within which to pass legislation regulating the practices. The result was Bill C-14, passed on June 17, 2016, which permits adults with a “serious and incurable illness, disease or disability” who are enduring “physical or psychological suffering that is intolerable to them” to request PAS or euthanasia if their natural death is “reasonably foreseeable.”
To view this paper as a PDF, see: A Reality Check on Assisted Suicide in Oregon.
The group “Compassion & Choices” (C&C) promotes Oregon’s state law allowing physician-assisted suicide as a model for the nation, claiming: “Almost two decades of rigorously observed and documented experience in Oregon shows us the law has worked as intended, with none of the problems opponents had predicted.” The evidence shows otherwise:
- All reporting of cases is by the physician who prescribed the lethal drug overdose, with no allowance for independent scrutiny; even death certificates are falsified to prevent such scrutiny.
- The vast majority of patients receive no psychological or psychiatric evaluation. The law allows assisted suicide for patients with depression or other mental disturbance, if the doctor feels that their condition has not led to “impaired judgment.”
- There is seldom a health professional present, and never an assessment of competency, psychological conditions or freedom from coercion, when the drugs are taken.
- Conditions qualifying a patient for the lethal prescription have grown to include cases of chronic illnesses, benign tumors, and sometimes no reported illness at all.
- Predictions that a patient will die within six months have proven highly unreliable, and like other actions by the physician need only be done “in good faith,” allowing actions that in other medical contexts would show negligence.
- Assurances of a quick and “painless” death have also proved unreliable.
- The law does not clearly require that the patient self-administer the lethal dose; in practice others may take an active role, and even health professionals who directly kill patients are not prosecuted.
- The pressures on patients include a state policy of reimbursing for assisted suicide but not for treatments that may sustain life.
- Despite a reporting system designed to conceal rather than detect problems, news of individual abuses has leaked out that may be only the tip of the iceberg.
Compassion & Choices (formerly the Hemlock Society), the nation’s most prominent advocate for legalizing assisted suicide for seriously ill patients, claims that experience in Oregon demonstrates that such “medical aid in dying” is a safe and well-regulated procedure. According to its fact sheet:
“Medical aid in dying is a safe and trusted medical practice because the eligibility requirements ensure that only mentally capable, terminally ill adults with a prognosis of six months or less who want the choice of a peaceful death are able to request and obtain aid-in-dying medication…. Almost two decades of rigorously observed and documented experience in Oregon shows us the law has worked as intended, with none of the problems opponents had predicted.”
In fact, even the official data collected by Oregon’s health department indicate otherwise, and independent sources confirm that the “safeguards” hailed by C&C do not prevent abuse.
“Rigorously observed and documented”?
Reporting to the state is done solely by the physician prescribing the lethal drugs, who has every incentive to report that all is well. The Oregon Health Division has admitted that a doctor’s account “could have been a cock-and-bull story,” adding that “we cannot detect or accurately comment on issues that may be under reported.”
At the time when the patient actually ingests the drugs and dies, this physician is not present in 90% of known cases; in 80% of known cases, no health care provider is present to observe.
Physicians’ reports are destroyed after the state does its annual statistical review.
Death certificates are falsified to report the underlying illness as the cause of death.  Yet the Oregon Health Department acknowledges that its reports include “the number of people for whom DWDA [Death with Dignity Act] prescriptions were written (DWDA recipients) and the resulting deaths from the ingestion of the medications (DWDA deaths).” Death certificates are falsified to avoid autopsy or other scrutiny.
Physicians and others are exempt from liability if they act “in good faith” — the lowest legal standard, allowing actions that are negligent.
Only “mentally capable” patients without depression or other mental disturbance?
Whether to request a psychological or psychiatric evaluation is optional for the physician. Over 96% of patients are given the lethal drugs without such evaluation.
The law provides for such evaluation only when the patient “may be suffering from a psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgment.” This allows giving the lethal drugs even to patients with clinical depression if the doctor decides the depression is a “normal” reaction to serious illness, and hence does not involve impaired judgment.
Competency at the time the drugs are taken?
Proponents claim that obtaining the prescription for lethal drugs or the drugs themselves does not necessarily indicate a desire to die, that some patients are simply reassured that if their condition were to become unbearable they would have that option. This means that assessing competency and freedom from mental disturbance is most important at the time the drugs are actually taken, which could occur many months later. The Oregon law provides for no assessment or scrutiny at that decisive time.
Only for “terminally ill adults with a prognosis of six months or less”?
Diagnoses that qualify patients for the drugs increasingly include less predictable conditions like chronic respiratory or cardiac disease, diabetes, etc. Even “benign and uncertain” tumors qualify.
Since 1998 there have been three Oregon patients with no known illness at all.
Nineteen patients who died from the drugs in 2016 (as well as seven in 2015 and 11 in 2014) had been diagnosed as having less than six months to live in previous years.
Of the 90 patients who received prescriptions in 2016 but did not take the drugs, only 36 died that year of other causes.
A sure and “peaceful” death?
In 2016, the drugs are known to have taken as long as nine hours to cause death (with this figure unknown in 81% of cases). In 2009, at least one patient died 104 hours after ingesting the drugs.
At least 30 patients in Oregon (three in 2016) have regurgitated some or all of the drugs. In all, six regained consciousness after taking them and died later. Five died from their underlying illness, and one patient in 2012 apparently died six days later from the effects of the drugs. No patient who has gone through this experience once seems ever to have tried again.
The patient’s own “choice”?
Just as there is no assessment of competency at the time the drugs are actually ingested, there is no scrutiny to determine whether this is voluntary or coerced. Even the law’s provision for criminal penalties for coercing a patient or exerting undue influence apply only to the “request for medication,” not the later administration of the drugs.
No provision of the Oregon law clearly requires that only the patient can administer the drugs; it does speak of the patient “ingesting” (swallowing or absorbing) the drugs. The Oregon attorney general’s office has said the state may have to allow other persons to administer them to patients with disabilities, to comply with laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Seventy percent of the patients taking the drugs in 2016 (and 71% in 2015) had no or only governmental health insurance. Oregon’s state health plan provides full funding for “aid in dying,” while capping coverage for potentially life-supporting therapies, raising the specter of financial pressure toward assisted suicide.
The Oregon law creates a closed system in which all reporting is by those most directly involved, rendering scrutiny by others almost impossible. Yet troubling cases in Oregon have become publicly known that may only be the tip of the iceberg:
– An elderly woman with dementia who received the lethal drugs, because her grown daughter (described by one physician as “somewhat coercive” in her demand for the drugs) kept shopping until she found a doctor willing to overlook the woman’s mental state and prescribe them.
– A man who suffered from clinical depression for decades before becoming physically ill, who nevertheless qualified for the lethal drugs — and was allowed to retain them even after guns were removed from his home due to his suicidal tendencies.
– A psychologist who never saw the patient but did his psychological assessment using a written questionnaire, with answers filled in at home by family members who laughed as they read the questions together.
– Nurses giving lethal drugs to patients they said had requested assisted suicide, and a physician injecting an unconscious patient with a paralyzing drug to cause death, leading to no prosecutions although all the law’s procedures were ignored.
In short, despite a thoroughly inadequate reporting system designed to cover up rather than reveal problems, Oregon shows exactly the problems that critics predicted: No meaningful protection against coercion, influence by others on patients with depression and dementia, an expansion beyond imminently dying patients, and a road toward active euthanasia.
C&C’s claim is false.
Richard M. Doerflinger, M.A. is an associate scholar with the Charlotte Lozier Institute and a Public Policy Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture.
 Compassion and Choices, “Medical Aid in Dying Fact Sheet” (December 2016).
 Or. Rev. Stat. 127.855 §3.09 and 127.865 §3.11; Oregon Health Division Center for Disease Prevention and Epidemiology, “A Year of Dignified Death,” in CD Summary (March 16, 1999) at 2, available at http://public.health.oregon.gov/DiseasesConditions/CommunicableDisease/CDSummaryNewsletter/Documents/1999/ohd4806.pdf.
 Oregon Public Health Division, “Oregon Death with Dignity Act: Data Summary 2016” (henceforth “Oregon 2016”) at 10; available at http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Documents/year19.pdf.
 British House of Lords, Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, Volume II: Evidence (2005) at 262 (Testimony of Dr. K. Hedberg of Oregon Department of Human Services, December 9, 2004), available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200405/ldselect/ldasdy/86/86ii.pdf.
 Dr. K. Hedberg, “Oregon Department of Human Services Reporting,” in Task Force to Improve the Care of Terminally-Ill Oregonians, The Oregon Death with Dignity Act: A Guidebook for Health Care Professionals (2008), Chapter 14; available at http://www.ohsu.edu/xd/education/continuing-education/center-for-ethics/ethics-outreach/upload/Oregon-Death-with-Dignity-Act-Guidebook.pdf.
 For example, see Oregon 2016, op. cit., at 4.
 Or. Rev. Stat. 885 §4.01; H. Hendin and K. Foley, “Physician-Assisted Suicide in Oregon: A Medical Perspective” (henceforth “Hendin and Foley”), 106 Michigan Law Review 1613-39 (2008) at 1626-7, available at http://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1374&context=mlr.
 Or. Rev. Stat. 127. 585 §3.03; Oregon 2016, op. cit., at 9.
 Or. Rev. Stat. 127.825 §3.03; Hendin and Foley, op. cit., at 1621-3, 1631.
 See J. Gross, “Landscape Evolves for Assisted Suicide,” The New York Times (Nov. 10, 2008), at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/11/health/11age.html, quoting Dr. Timothy Quill (“Most patients will be reassured by the possibility of an escape, and will never need to activate that escape”).
 Oregon 2016, op. cit., at 9 and 11 n. 2.
 Oregon Public Health Division, “Oregon Death with Dignity Act: 2015 Data Summary” (henceforth “Oregon 2015”), at 6; available at
 Oregon 2016, op. cit., at 5; Oregon 2015, at 4; Oregon Public Health Division, “Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act—2014,” at 2, available at http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Documents/year17.pdf.
 Oregon 2016, op. cit., at 5.
 Id. at 11.
 Oregon Public Health Division, “2009 Summary of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act” at 5; available at
 Oregon 2016, op. cit., at 10 and 11 n. 7; see annual reports for 2005, 2010, 2011 and 2012 at Oregon Health Authority, “Death with Dignity Act Annual Reports,” http://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Pages/ar-index.aspx.
 Or. Rev. Stat. 127.890 §4.02.
 Or. Rev. Stat. 127.875 §3.13; M. Dore, “‘Death with Dignity’: A Recipe for Elder Abuse and Homicide (Albeit Not by Name),” 11.2 Marquette Elder’s Advisor 387-401 (Spring 2010) at 391-3, available at http://scholarship.law.marquette.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1027&context=elders; Letter of Oregon deputy attorney general David Schuman to state legislator Neil Bryant, March 15, 1999.
 Oregon 2016, op. cit., at 9; Oregon 2015, op. cit., at 5; D. Springer, “Oregon Offers Terminal Patients Doctor-Assisted Suicide Instead of Medical Care,” Fox News, July 28, 2008, at http://www.foxnews.com/story/2008/07/28/oregon-offers-terminal-patients-doctor-assisted-suicide-instead-medical-care.html.
 Hendin and Foley, op. cit., at 1624-5.
 After obtaining the drugs from a doctor claiming he had less than six months to live, the patient received encouragement and care from others and died peacefully of natural causes more than a year later, after reconciling with his grown daughter. Hendin and Foley, op. cit., at 1631-3; Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation, “Five Oregonians to Remember” (henceforth “PCCEF”), at http://www.pccef.org/articles/art60.htm.
 Hendin and Foley, op. cit., at 1622-3.
 Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, “Some Oregon and Washington State Assisted Suicide Abuses and Complications,” at https://dredf.org/public-policy/assisted-suicide/some-oregon-assisted-suicide-abuses-and-complications/; PCCEF, op. cit.
To view this paper as a PDF, see: The Effect of Legalizing Assisted Suicide on Palliative Care and Suicide Rates: A Response to Compassion and Choices.
The leading national organization promoting legalization of physician-assisted suicide, “Compassion & Choices” (formerly known as the Hemlock Society), has distributed a December 2016 “Medical Aid in Dying Fact Sheet” in various state legislatures around the country to persuade them to approve what they call “medical aid in dying.” This involves authorizing physicians to prescribe lethal overdoses of barbiturates to patients they diagnose as having six months or less to live, so the patients may use them to cause their own deaths. The flagship law in this agenda is an Oregon law approved by the state’s voters in 1994, which took effect late in 1997. C&C claims, among other things, that two decades of experience in Oregon show that legalization leads to improvements in palliative and end-of-life care and reduces “violent” suicides, and it cites articles in medical journals that it says support this claim. In fact, the medical literature, far from lending support to C&C’s agenda, underscores the adverse effects of that agenda to vulnerable people generally and to seriously ill patients in particular.
The doctor asked the elderly Dutch woman’s family members to hold her down while the fatal dose was administered.
The woman was suffering from dementia and had previously affirmed that she wanted to be euthanized “at the right time,” but the determination of the “right time” for her to die was apparently made without her consultation. After being placed in a nursing home, she exhibited signs of fear and anger and wandered the building at night. The senior doctor at the nursing home judged that the woman was no longer capable of giving her consent to euthanasia, but that the circumstances nevertheless warranted action.
Richard Doerflinger, M.A., is a Public Policy Fellow with the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture and an Adjunct Fellow in Bioethics and Public Policy at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. He was formerly Associate Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, where he worked for 36 years. He also serves on the Advisory Board to the Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Mr. Doerflinger is one of our nearly 40 associate scholars. In this interview, he discusses physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. View More
In 2002, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to decriminalize euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS) for patients who meet criteria set forth by the law, such as that they endure “unbearable” suffering with “no prospect of improvement.” Now the Dutch government is pushing to expand eligibility to include individuals who have no medical condition but nevertheless feel that their life is completed.
Update (10/5/2016): By a close 3-2 vote, the D.C. Health and Human Services Committee voted in favor of moving forward B21-38 for the full Council vote on October 18, 2016.
On October 5, the District of Columbia’s Committee on Health and Human Services (HHS) will mark-up and vote on a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide. The so-called “Death with Dignity Act” (Bill 21-0038) would permit D.C. adult residents to request and be prescribed drugs to end their lives, if they are given a prognosis of six months or less to live. Last year, during a hearing on the legislation, the Director of D.C.’s Department of Health testified in staunch opposition as the executive witness, stating that the bill would “catapult the District into uncharted territories.”
According to the annual report from Oregon’s Public Health Division released in February, 132 people died from assisted suicide in the state – more people than in any of the 17 previous years and at a 26 percent increase from 2014.
Most individuals who died by assisted suicide were 65 years or older, either had no insurance or government insurance, and were not currently married.
Already this year, at least eight states are considering bills to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Of these, Colorado, Maryland, and Utah have renamed their bills, formerly titled “Death with Dignity,” as “End of Life Options” bills – the name under which California legalized assisted suicide last October.
Yet, the deceptive title, which now eliminates all reference to death, seemingly seeks both to legalize and normalize assisted suicide as “just another medical option.” A new study published last week in JAMA Psychiatry, however, raises afresh ongoing concerns with assisted suicide, especially as it relates to those with mental illness or distress.
This academic paper analyzes the significance of a legislator’s position in favor of assisted suicide. In particular, the paper looks at the risk associated with support for legalization of assisted suicide on subsequent re-election. This original work comes from the Department of Social Sciences at Tarleton State University, written by Dr. Jacqueline C. Harvey, a political science faculty member. This version of the paper is a conference abstract that was presented at the 2016 Southern Political Science Association Conference. The full version of the paper will be published in an appropriate academic journal at a later date.
Switzerland has an unlikely tourist attraction — one where those who visit never leave — and it draws Germans to it more than visitors of any other nationality. It is called the Dignitas clinic, and Germans represent 44 percent of foreign-nationals paying the staff to help them commit suicide. This is more than double the next most common nationality of suicide tourists, British citizens, who constitute 21 percent of the euthanasia clinic’s international business. Death as a paid service is such a concern to the governments of Germany and the United Kingdom that both have recently voted on legislation to ban this practice. Britain overwhelmingly rejected killing outright this September with a vote of 330 to 118 against legalizing assisted suicide.
On September 11, California legislators passed Assembly Bill X2-15, the “End of Life Option Act,” which legalizes physician-assisted suicide. If the bill is not vetoed by California Governor Jerry Brown within 31 days of its passage, the bill will become state law. Here is an open letter written to Gov. Brown by CLI Associate Scholar Dr. Jacqueline Harvey, Ph.D. urging him to veto the bill.
September 6 to 12 is National Suicide Prevention Week, and yet almost as if in a cruel joke, the California legislature has fast-tracked a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the state. Just yesterday, the “End of Life Options Act” (AB X2-15) passed the State Assembly by a vote of 44-35.
The bill now goes to the Senate for a vote this Friday, where it is expected to pass since the Senate passed a very similar assisted suicide bill earlier this year. That earlier bill stalled in committee. If the current measure passes, it would take effect in 31 days unless Governor Jerry Brown vetoes it. The Governor has not made any public statement on the bill, except that he was displeased at its introduction into his special session on healthcare financing.
In mid-August, California lawmakers announced a second attempt to legalize assisted suicide this year. In July, a nearly identical bill, SB 128, died in the Health Committee. The proposed legislation, now revived as Assembly Bill X2-15 (the End of Life Option Act), was introduced during a special legislative session on healthcare financing, which will allow it to bypass the previous committee in which it stalled.
Today, the Public Health and Developmental Services Committee will hold a hearing on the assisted suicide bill. This 13-member panel is a different and smaller health committee than the one in which the original bill previously stalled. Notably, it does not include the handful of Democratic Members who opposed the bill in July. It appears that as of Monday, AB X2-15 was not yet listed on the official hearing schedule for today.
On July 10, 2015 the District of Columbia Committee on Health and Human Services held a public hearing on proposed legislation B21-0038, named the “Death with Dignity Act of 2015.” Dr. William L. Toffler, M.D., National Director of Physicians for Compassionate Care, and a practicing physician in Oregon for over 35 years, testified in opposition to the bill.
Last Tuesday, a proposed bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide in California was shelved by its primary authors due to lack of support, and is unlikely to be voted on this year. Senate Bill 128, which passed the state Senate last month, would have allowed doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill individuals seeking to die.
Democratic state Senators Bill Monning and Lois Wolk, who authored SB 128, pulled the bill from the Assembly Health Committee’s schedule of hearings Tuesday after it became clear that enough Assembly Members would not support it to allow passage. Among the opposed Members were a number of Latino Democrats, making up about a third of the committee, who spoke against the bill in the context of their personal experiences.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 28, 2015
Contact: Mallory Quigley, firstname.lastname@example.org, 202-223-8073
New Paper Warns Against Expansion of Physician-Assisted Suicide in the U.S.
Wesley J. Smith: Legalizing Assisted Suicide is Bad Medicine, Worse Public Policy
WASHINGTON, D.C. – As an increasing number of states weigh the legalization of physician-assisted suicide, a new paper released by the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) elaborates the arguments against the practice, citing numerous abuses. Award-winning author Wesley J. Smith examines how assisted suicide impacts the states and countries where it has been legalized, particularly legalization’s effect on medical ethics and patient care. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant to the Patients Rights Council.
*To view a map of assisted suicide legislation in the United States, click here.
For the last twenty years, the United States has been subjected to an unremitting, well- financed, and intensely emotional campaign to legalize assisted suicide as a supposedly compassionate way to help end the suffering of people with terminal illnesses. Assisted suicide became prominent in the public square with the late Jack Kevorkian’s notorious campaign that resulted in the deaths of at least 130 people from 1991-1999, ending only when Kevorkian was finally imprisoned for murder. Concerted efforts have also been made all around the country to pass laws permitting doctor-prescribed death. While the movement has made gains, it has been slow going. As of this writing, only three states have formally legalized assisted suicide: Oregon voters approved a law in 1994 allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of barbiturates to patients diagnosed with six months or less to live. Washington voters followed suit in 2008. The Vermont legislature passed a similar law in 2013. But advocates have failed more often than they have succeeded. Voters rejected legalization in California (1992), Michigan (1998), Maine (2000), and Massachusetts (2012). Legislatures throughout the country have repeatedly refused to pass laws permitting doctors to prescribe lethal overdoses to terminally ill patients, for example, in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.
There have also been a few judicial rulings on the question. In a rather muddled decision, the Supreme Court of Montana found that there is no state constitutional right to assisted suicide, but also that doctors who assist patients to die are not violating the existing public policy of Montana. A trial judge in New Mexico found a constitutional right to assisted suicide in that state, but as of this writing the case is on appeal. But most cases have gone against the assisted-suicide-as-a-right position. Most notably, in 1997, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously that there is no right in the U.S. Constitution to assisted suicide. Other such efforts have failed – for example, in Florida and Alaska.
The assisted suicide movement is, if anything, indefatigable. Not only is it undeterred by its failures, but it is now more energized than any other time in recent years. By the end of March of 2015, bills were introduced in twenty-five state legislatures to legalize assisted suicide.
Defining the Subject
Many people remain confused about the exact nature of assisted suicide advocacy, sometimes confusing it with other medical issues involving end-of-life care. Thus, to fully understand the subject, we must distinguish between ethical choices at the end of life that may lead to death and the poison of euthanasia/assisted suicide.
1. Refusing unwanted medical treatment is not assisted suicide: Fear of being “hooked up to machines” when one wishes to die at home has traditionally been a driving force behind the assisted suicide movement. But we all have the right to refuse medical interventions—even if the choice is likely to lead to death. Thus, a cancer patient can reject chemotherapy and a patient dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease can say no to a respirator. Indeed, in 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the right to refuse medical treatment is completely different from assisted suicide.
2. Assisted suicide/euthanasia is not the same as medical treatment for pain control: Because pain control may require strong drugs, which can cause death, assisted suicide advocates often claim that palliation and euthanasia are ethically the same under the “principle of double effect.” But this is all wrong:
- Any legitimate medical treatment can unintentionally lead to death, including pain alleviation. In assisted suicide death is the intended effect.
- We would never say that a patient who died during open heart surgery was euthanized. Similarly, a patient who dies from the unintended side effects of pain control has not been assisted in suicide or euthanized.
- Pain control experts state that aggressive pain control generally does not shorten life.
3. Assisted suicide/euthanasia is antithetical to hospice: Hospice was founded by the great medical humanitarian Dame Cicely Saunders in the late 1960s as a reform movement to bring the care of the dying out of isolated hospitals and into patients’ homes or non-institutional local care facilities. Its purpose is to provide dying people with proper treatment of pain and other disturbing symptoms as well as to render spiritual, psychological, and social support toward the end that life be lived as fully as possible until natural death.
In contrast, assisted suicide is about rushing death, making it happen sooner rather than later through lethal actions. Or to put it another way: Hospice is about living. Assisted suicide/euthanasia is about dying. As the noted palliative care expert and assisted suicide opponent Dr. Ira Byock has written, “There’s a distinction between alleviating suffering and eliminating the sufferer — between enabling someone to die gently of their disease and ending that person’s life with a lethal pill or injection.”
4. Assisted suicide/euthanasia are acts that intentionally end life: In contrast to the above, the intended purpose of assisted suicide and euthanasia is to end life, e.g., to kill. In assisted suicide, the last act causing death is taken by the person who dies, for example, ingesting a lethal prescription of barbiturates. In euthanasia, the death is a homicide, an act of killing taken by a third person, such as a doctor injecting a patient with poisonous drugs.
The “Slippery Slope” Is All Too Real
Since the emergence of the contemporary euthanasia/assisted suicide movement in the 1980s, opponents have warned against the “slippery slope” that would be set in motion once assisted suicide and/or euthanasia became legal and accepted. The term refers to the commonsense worry that once killing is accepted as a permissible method of alleviating human suffering—the core premise of assisted suicide/euthanasia philosophy—it will lead inexorably to an ever-expanding regimen of hastening death.
In the early days of the debate, such arguments were dismissed by assisted suicide supporters as mere alarmism. But the experience of legalized euthanasia in the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as legal assisted suicide in Switzerland, provides ample evidence that the slippery-slope hypothesis is true.
Netherlands: Euthanasia wasn’t technically legal in the Netherlands until 2002. But beginning in the 1970s—after a court decision refusing to punish a doctor who euthanized her elderly mother—doctors were promised that they would not be prosecuted for lethally injecting or assisting the suicides of patients if they followed protective guidelines. In 1993, the Dutch Parliament legally formalized the informal system of euthanasia permissiveness. Today, the law’s requirements include:
- The request must be made entirely of the patient’s own free will and not under pressure from others.
- The patient must have a lasting longing for death.
- The request must be made repeatedly over a period of time.
- The patient must be experiencing unbearable suffering.
- The patient must be given alternatives to euthanasia and time to consider these alternatives.
- There must be no reasonable alternatives to euthanasia as the means to relieve suffering.
- Doctors must consult with at least one colleague who has faced the question of euthanasia before.
- Only a doctor can euthanize a patient.
In actual practice these guidelines have been ignored routinely or interpreted by courts to the point that they offer scant protection for the weak and vulnerable. Nor have they prevented a steady expansion of the categories of people who are euthanized. Today in the Netherlands not only are terminally ill people who ask to be killed euthanized, but also the chronically ill, the elderly “tired of life,” and those with mental illnesses.
Euthanizing the depressed and mentally ill was approved by the Supreme Court of the Netherlands in 1994 in a case that opened the door to the killing of people facing psychological distress. Psychiatrist Boutdewijn Chabot assisted the suicide of Hilly Bossher, a middle-aged, healthy woman who had lost her two children, one to suicide and the other to illness. Bossher became obsessed about being buried between her two dead children and met Chabot at a Dutch Euthanasia Society gathering.
Chabot took Bossher as a patient but did not attempt to treat her because Bossher feared that treatment would “loosen the bonds with her deceased sons.” After four meetings with Bossher over a period of about five weeks, the psychiatrist assisted her suicide. The Dutch Supreme Court validated Chabot’s act, ruling that suffering is suffering, whether physically or mentally caused, and that Chabot’s actions were acceptable medical practice. (He was criticized for not having a second psychiatrist personally examine her.)
In recent years, advocacy has appeared in Dutch medical journals urging psychiatrists to increase their use of euthanasia as a treatment for the severely mentally ill. For example, an article published in the Dutch-language Journal of Psychiatry (tijdschrift voor psychiatrie) in 2011 states:
Assisted suicide, as a last resort in psychiatry, legally admissible since 2002, recently legitimized in practice. The midwife [of] Death is now appropriate for psychiatric reach patients, representing an emancipation of the psychiatric patient and psychiatry itself.
Consider: Killing called “liberation.” Dutch psychiatrists apparently heeded the call for greater participation in euthanasia. In 2012, fourteen mentally ill patients were euthanized by their psychiatrists. In 2013, that number tripled to 42.
Infants born with serious disabilities and terminal conditions are openly euthanized by Netherlander pediatricians and neonatologists without legal consequence, even though hastening the death of babies is clearly illegal. According to a 1997 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, approximately eight percent of Dutch infants who died in 1995—not eight percent of all infants—were euthanized by doctors who administered drugs “with the explicit aim of hastening death.” If the study, which looked into the deaths of 338 infants between August and November 1995 is accurate, and with approximately 1,000 infants dying in the Netherlands each year (1,041 in 1995), approximately 80 seriously ill and disabled babies were murdered each year by their doctors without legal consequence. A follow-up investigation in the same journal in 2005 came to a nearly identical conclusion.
Dutch infanticide came completely out of the shadows in 2004 with the publication of the “Groningen Protocol for Euthanasia in Newborns” in a Dutch medical journal. The protocol was drawn up by doctors at the Groningen Academic Hospital—led by Dr. Eduard Verhagen, head of the hospital’s pediatric department. Infanticide is a clear violation of the existing euthanasia law which requires competent patients to request death voluntarily. No matter, Verhagen explained, “It’s time to be honest about the unbearable suffering endured by newborns with no hope of a future,” adding his wish that the Groningen Protocol would serve as a nationwide guide to the killing of seriously ill or disabled infants.
Many Dutch doctors also practice nonvoluntary euthanasia; that is, they kill patients who have not asked to be killed. The exact number of such killings is hard to quantify definitively and is a matter of some dispute. In 2010, the Dutch government reported 310 cases of “termination without request or consent,” clear violations of Dutch law that went unprosecuted and unpunished. How many went unreported will never be known.
Belgium: If the Netherlands slid down the “slippery slope,” Belgium jumped off the cliff head first. Belgium legalized euthanasia in 2002. The very first euthanasia death of a multiple sclerosis patient violated the then-new law’s guidelines. No matter: Guidelines are meant to provide assurance more than they are to actually restrict medicalized killing. Indeed, since 2002, the country has experienced a crescendo of increasingly radical medicalized killings and/or permissions to kill that demonstrate the logical consequences of accepting the premise that killing is an acceptable answer to human suffering. Here are just a few examples:
Joint Euthanasia Deaths of the Elderly: At least three elderly couples who didn’t want to live apart died together in joint euthanasia killings. The first was in 2011—the couple was not seriously impaired and the euthanasia was carried out with the full knowledge and apparent approval of their community. The second known joint euthanasia took place two years later when an elderly couple who had been married 64 years—both seriously ill, in this example—were euthanized surrounded by their children and grandchildren. The third joint euthanasia—of a still-healthy couple who “feared the future”—was performed by a doctor procured by the couple’s own son.
There have also been joint euthanasia deaths of siblings in Belgium. Identical twins, age 45, were both born deaf. They asked for joint euthanasia after learning they were in danger of losing their eyesight. Doctors at Brussels University Hospital euthanized the two men by lethal injection in 2012.
Euthanasia after Sexual Exploitation by Psychiatrist: “Ann G.” was a suicidal anorexia patient who publicly accused her previous psychiatrist of persuading her into having sexual relations. When the psychiatrist — who admitted the charge — was not severely disciplined, Ann went to a second psychiatrist for euthanasia. She died at age 44.
Euthanasia for a Botched Sex Change: Nathan Verhelst underwent a sex change surgery from woman to man, and then was euthanized because of despair over the result by the same doctor who lethally injected the twins.
Euthanasia for Mental Illness: As in the Netherlands, Belgian psychiatrists apply euthanasia as a “treatment” for mental illness. Humo magazine reported in 2015 that about 50 mentally ill patients are euthanized annually.
Assisted Suicide for Children: Belgium legalized assisted suicide for children in 2014, with no lower age limit.
Euthanasia Joined with Organ Harvesting: Belgian doctors pioneered the conjoining of voluntary euthanasia with organ donation. Several medical journals have had reports about the practice. For example, a 2011 study extolled successful voluntary euthanasia killings and subsequent lung transplants from four patients who wanted to die; three were disabled and one was mentally ill. (Following Belgium’s lead, the government in the Netherlands is preparing regulations to do the same in that country.)
Switzerland: Swiss law has permitted assisted suicide since 1942 so long as the assister does not have “selfish motives.” For years, nothing much came of it, but with the emergence of the modern euthanasia movement, enterprising believers in assisted suicide established suicide clinics to which people could travel from around the world—a phenomenon known as “suicide tourism.”
The death clinics are becoming increasingly popular. A report published in 2013 revealed that 1,701 people have died at one clinic (Dignitas) alone since 1998, with 205 killing themselves within the facility in 2013. The people who die in these clinics are not limited to the terminally ill and indeed sometimes include healthy people. For example, in recent months, an elderly Italian woman died at a suicide clinic because she was upset about losing her looks. Her family only learned she was dead when the clinic sent the urn containing her ashes in the mail. There have also been joint suicides, as in Belgium, of elderly couples who don’t want to live apart. The Swiss Federal Supreme Court, like its counterpart in the Netherlands, has also declared a right to assisted suicide for the mentally ill.
Canada: In 2015, the Canadian Supreme Court legalized euthanasia as a Charter right throughout the country. Of particular interest to this discussion, the unanimous ruling started a Canadian euthanasia regime at the very place down the slippery slope that took decades to evolve in the Netherlands, and years in Belgium.
The ruling grants competent adults a right to die if they have an “illness, disease, or disability that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual,” including “psychological” pain. A treatable condition can qualify as “irremediable” if the patient chooses not to pursue available remedies. So an “irremediable” condition that permits life-termination may actually be wholly remediable in fact, except that the patient would rather die than receive care.
The Court has held the ruling in abeyance for one year to permit the Canadian Parliament to enact laws consistent with its finding, so further details may be forthcoming. This much is sure: Netherlands/Belgium style euthanasia has penetrated the North American continent.
Oregon legalized assisted suicide by voter initiative in 1994, with the law going into effect in 1997. Since then, well over 700 people have committed suicide under the law, legally assisted by doctors.
When the horrors of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland are discussed in a paper such as this, advocates for doctor-prescribed death usually reply that Oregon proves that whatever abuses might happen overseas, they need not happen here. But there have been abuses in Oregon — the media just has not written much about them.
Besides, how would supporters of assisted suicide know the law has worked without abuse? State oversight depends almost entirely on physician self-reporting, and the state agency in charge of oversight readily admits it does not know about assisted suicides that are not reported. Moreover, even if an abuse is reported or somehow uncovered, Oregon officials admitted to a United Kingdom House of Lords investigative committee that Oregon’s oversight agency does not have the legal authority—or budget—to conduct independent inquiries even if a legal violation is uncovered. The House of Lords was considering legalization of assisted suicide in that country.
Perhaps that is why Dr. Kathleen Foley and psychiatrist Herbert Hendin—the nation’s foremost palliative care expert and a premier suicide prevention expert, respectively—concluded in their published Michigan Law Review study that “the evidence strongly suggests” that the Oregon law’s “safeguards are circumvented in ways that are harmful to patients.”
Meanwhile, data published annually by the Oregon Health Department show that most requests for assisted suicide have little to do with pain, but generally involve future fears about losing autonomy or the ability to engage in enjoyable activities and possible loss of dignity. These are important matters to be sure, but they don’t require lethal prescriptions to ameliorate.
Moreover, there have been cases of clear or apparent abuse.
Kate Cheney: The Kate Cheney assisted suicide reported in the (Portland) Oregonian, demonstrated the flexibility of Oregon’s protective guidelines. Cheney, age 85, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and sought assisted suicide. But there was a problem: Cheney was probably in the early stages of dementia, raising significant questions about her mental competence. So, rather than prescribe lethal drugs, her doctor referred her to a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist found that Cheney had a loss of short-term memory causing the psychiatrist to write in his report that while the assisted suicide seemed consistent with Cheney’s values, “she does not seem to be explicitly pushing for this.” He also determined that she did not have the “very high capacity required to weigh options about assisted suicide.”
Advocates of legalized assisted suicide might, at this point, smile happily and point out that such refusals are the way the law is supposed to operate to protect the vulnerable. But that wasn’t the end of her story. According to the Oregonian, Cheney appeared to accept the psychiatrist’s verdict but her daughter most explicitly did not. To circumvent the rejection of assisted suicide, the family next did what anyone in Oregon wanting assisted suicide can do if refused by one physician: they went doctor shopping.
Kaiser Permanente, Cheney’s HMO, allowed another opinion. This time the psychiatric consultation was with a clinical psychologist rather than an M.D.-psychiatrist. The psychologist worriedly wrote that Cheney’s decision to die “may be influenced by her family’s wishes.” Still, despite these reservations, she determined that Cheney was competent to commit suicide.
The final decision to approve the death was made by a Kaiser HMO ethicist/ administrator. The elderly woman wanted to die because she was afraid of not being able to attend to her personal hygiene. After interviewing Cheney, the Kaiser administrator was satisfied that she was competent and approved the lethal prescription.
What happened next in the Cheney case illustrates the potential for problems that can arise after the lethal prescription is issued—a point at which there are no protective guidelines or controls. (For example, the prescribing doctor need not be present at the suicide). Cheney did not take her lethal drugs right away. She first asked to die immediately after her daughter had to help her shower, after an accident with her colostomy bag. But she quickly changed her mind. Then Cheney went to a nursing home for a week so that her family could have some respite from care giving.
The time spent in the nursing home may have pushed Cheney into wanting immediate death. As soon as she was brought home she declared her desire to take the pills. Her grandchildren were quickly called to say their goodbyes, and Cheney swallowed her prescribed poison. She died with her daughter at her side, telling her what a courageous woman she was.
If Cheney was depressed when she swallowed the poison, there was no doctor available to diagnose it. If she was coaxed or pressured into taking the pills (which was not contended or implied in the Oregonian story), there were no witnesses from outside the family to protest. Indeed, other than what family members told the Oregonian reporter, we don’t know what happened at Kate Cheney’s death since the Oregon guidelines do not require any independent assessment of assisted suicide deaths.
Michael Freeland: Michael P. Freeland was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000. Freeland, as it happens, died naturally on December 5, 2002. Oregon law requires a finding that the patient can be reasonably expected to die within six months before a lethal prescription is authorized. But Freeland’s death occurred nearly two years after receiving the lethal prescription, demonstrating that patients who are not terminally ill under law may still receive lethal prescriptions.
On January 23, 2002, Freeland was admitted to Providence Portland Medical Center for depression with suicidal and possibly homicidal thoughts. A social worker went to Freeland’s home and found it “uninhabitable,” with “heaps of clutter, rodent feces, ashes extending two feet from the fireplace into the living room, lack of food and heat, etc. Thirty-two firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition were removed by the police.” Amazingly, the “lethal medications” that had been prescribed more than a year before were left in the house—presumably in case Freeland wanted to use them.
Freeland was hospitalized for a week and then discharged on January 30, 2002. The discharging psychiatrist noted with approval that the guns had been removed, “which resolves the major safety issue,” but wrote that Freeland’s lethal prescription remained “safely at home.” Freeland was permitted to keep the overdose even though the psychiatrist reported he would “remain vulnerable to periods of delirium.” In-home care was considered likely to assist with this problem, but a January 24 chart notation indicated that Freeland “does have his life-ending medications that he states he may or may not use, so that [in-home care] may or may not be a moot point.”
Freeland didn’t kill himself. Instead, he had called Physicians for Compassionate Care—an anti-assisted suicide nonprofit organization—that arranged for his care. Freeland was properly treated for depression with medication. He received good pain control, including a morphine pump. Best of all, he was reunited with his estranged daughter and died knowing she loved him and would cherish his memory.
Based on their review of the facts and circumstances surrounding Freeland receiving a lethal prescription, including his medical records, Dr. N. Gregory Hamilton and Catherine A. Hamilton reached important conclusions about the danger assisted suicide legalization poses to ill Oregonians with suicidal desires, and the law’s discriminatory effect on patients as well as its impact on mental health professionals. They write in their study, presented at the 2004 American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting, and later published in The American Journal of Psychiatry: 
The legalization of doctor-assisted suicide in Oregon has resulted in the introduction of competing paradigms—the traditional clinical approach [Removing lethal means is central to the clinical treatment of suicide symptoms] and the assisted suicide competency model [providing lethal means]—for responding to suicidal thoughts and behaviors in seriously ill individuals…These competing models appear to be based on incompatible underlying assumptions about the value of protecting life depending on predictions of how long a patient might live…We conclude that the attempt to mix models is confusing to both clinicians and patients and endangers seriously ill patients, particularly those with a history of pre-existing mental illness.
Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup: Then there are the well-documented cases of Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup. Both had recurrent terminal cancer while on Oregon’s version of Medicaid, a program in which there is explicit rationing barring coverage for some life-extending (as opposed to curative) chemotherapy. Their doctors prescribed chemotherapy to extend their lives. But—in a decision relevant to our current health-care-reform debate—state bureaucrats refused to cover their treatments because the medical literature indicated that neither could be expected to survive for five years with the prescribed drugs. Instead, they offered Wagner and Stroup funding for their assisted suicides. When their cases hit the news, they caused great embarrassment to assisted suicide advocates. Wagner was eventually offered free chemotherapy by the drug company. Stroup’s denial of treatment was later reversed on appeal. Both died naturally from their cancers.
Assisted suicide and euthanasia would profoundly change—are profoundly changing—the ethics of medicine and cultural views about the value and worth of people with difficult lives, whether caused by illness, disability, or mental anguish. And it is hurting many of those who strive to cope with these conditions, but repeatedly are told that their lives are not worth protecting from suicide, and indeed that, if they want to die, society will allow doctors to provide the means.
In this regard, hearken to the words of Robert Salamanca of Pleasanton, California, who died naturally of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Salamanca believed strongly that assisted-suicide advocacy diminished the value of the lives of people experiencing illnesses and disabilities. Indeed, he felt so strongly about this he wrote an important column in the San Francisco Chronicle, stating in part:
Euthanasia advocates believe they are doing people like me a favor. They are not. The negative emotions toward the terminally ill and disabled generated by their advocacy is actually at the expense of the “dying” and their families and friends. We often feel disheartened and without self-assurance because of a false picture of what it is like to die created by these enthusiasts who prey on the misinformed.
What we, the terminally ill, need is exactly the opposite—to realize how important our lives are. And our loved ones, friends, and indeed, society need to help us feel that we are loved and appreciated unconditionally.
Salamanca was right. The proper approach to death, dying, and other sources of human suffering is to increase our levels of care and compassion, not permit doctors to coolly write lethal prescriptions or, as in Europe and soon Canada, “treat” physical or psychological suffering with a lethal jab.
Whatever our beliefs might be about an idealized system of assisted suicide, in the real world of America today, legalizing assisted suicide would be dangerous and reckless. With our dysfunctional health care system, high rates of elder abuse, already alarmingly significant suicide levels, pronounced economic uncertainties, divisions of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, class, and immigration status, and the concomitant lack of mutual trust, legalizing assisted suicide would be bad medicine and even worse public policy.
Award winning author, Wesley J. Smith, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant to the Patients Rights Council.
 According to a report by the Better Business Bureau, Compassion and Choices—previously known as the Hemlock Society–the best-known assisted suicide advocacy group in the country. For fiscal 2014, it reported income of $19,296,447. Its executive director, Barbara Coombs Lee, received $205,755 compensation in 2012. http://www.give.org/charity-reviews/national/health/compassion-and-choices-in-denver-co-1112
 Death with Dignity National Center, “Death with Dignity Around the U.S.,” March 20, 2015, http://www.deathwithdignity.org/advocates/national
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 Washington “Death with Dignity Act,” http://app.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=70.245
 Vermont “Patient Choice and Control at the End of Life Act,” http://healthvermont.gov/family/end_of_life_care/patient_choice.aspx
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 van der Heide A, van der Maas PJ, van der Wal G, de Graaf CLM, Kester JG, Koilee LAA, de Leeuw R, Holl RA. (1997). Medical End-of-Life Decisions Made for Neonates and Infants in the Netherlands. The Lancet 350: 251.
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 Groningen Hospital press release, December 10, 2004. https://www.umcg.nl/EN/corporate/News/Pages/Paediatricianscallfornationwideprotocolfortheendingoflifeofunbearablyandincureablysufferingnewborns.aspx
 Statline Statistics Netherlands, “Deaths by Medical End-of-Life Decision,” July 11, 2012, http://statline.cbs.nl/StatWeb/publication/?VW=T&DM=SLen&PA=81655ENG&LA=en
 Osborn A. Belgian Outcry Over First Mercy Killing Under New Law. The Guardian, October 8, 2002. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/oct/09/andrewosborn
 Smith WJ. Culture of Death: Elderly Belgian Couple Euthanized Together [blog]. National Review, Human Exceptionalism. March 31, 2011, http://www.nationalreview.com/human-exceptionalism/322963/culture-death-elderly-belgian-couple-euthanized-together-wesley-j-smith
 The World Post. Leopold Dauwe and Paula Raman, Belgian Elderly Couple, Euthanized Together. June 26, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/26/leopold-dauwe-paula-raman-euthanized_n_3504348.html?utm_hp_ref=world
 Caldwell S. Elderly couple to die together by assisted suicide even though they are not ill. Daily Mail, September 25, 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2770249/Healthy-OAP-couple-die-assisted-suicide-Husband-wife-support-three-children.html
 Waterfield B. Belgian Identical Twins in Unique Mercy Killing. The Telegraph, January 13, 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/belgium/9798778/Belgian-identical-twins-in-unique-mercy-killing.html
 Cook M. Another Speedbump for Belgian Euthanasia. Bioedge, February 8, 2013, http://www.bioedge.org/bioethics/bioethics_article/10388
 Gayle D. Transsexual, 44, Elects to Die by Euthanasia After Botched Sex-Change Operation. Daily Mail, October 1, 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2440086/Belgian-transsexual-Nathan-Verhelst-44-elects-die-euthanasia-botched-sex-change-operation.html
 “Annual 50 Times Euthanasia for Mental Illness,” Humo, March 20, 2015 (Google translation). http://www.humo.be/actua/326521/jaarlijks-vijftig-keer-euthanasie-om-psychiatrische-redenen
 Associated Press. Belgium Passes Law Extending Euthanasia to Children of All Ages. February 13, 2014.
 Van Raemdonck D, Verleden GM, Dupont I, Ysebaert D, Monbaliu D, Neyrinck A, Goosemans W, Decaluwe H, De Leyn P, Nafteux P, Lerut T. (2011). Initial Experience with Transplantation of Lungs Recovered from Donors After Euthanasia. Applied Cardiopulmonary Pathophysiology 15: 38-48
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 Appel JM (2007). A Suicide Right for the Mentally Ill? A Swiss Case Opens a New Debate.. Hastings Center Report 37 (3): 21–23
 Carter v. Canada (Attorney General), 2015 SCC 5 (2015) http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/14637/index.do
 House of Lords Select Committee on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, HL, p. 266, Q. 615. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200405/ldselect/ldasdy/86/86ii.pdf
 Hendin H, Foley K. (2008). Physician-Assisted Suicide in Oregon: A Medical Perspective. Michigan Law Review 106: 1613-1645
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 Barnett EH. Is Mom Capable of Choosing to Die? The Oregonian, October 17, 1999, G1&2.
 Hamilton NG, Hamilton CA. (2005). Competing Paradigms of Response to Assisted Suicide Requests in Oregon. The American Journal of Psychiatry 162(6): 1060-1065. (Freeland was later identified as the “Patient A” in the paper).
 Hamilton NG and Hamilton C. 2004. Competing paradigms of responding to assisted-suicide requests in Oregon: case report. Presented at American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting, New York City, May 6, 2004, http://www.pccef.org/articles/art28.htm
 Hamilton NG, and Catherine A. Hamilton CA., (2005). “Competing Paradigms of Response to Assisted Suicide Requests in Oregon,”. The American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 162(, Issue 6): 1060-1065
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 Salamanca R. I Don’t Want a Choice to Die. San Francisco Chronicle, February 19, 1997.
The map below shows which states have passed laws legalizing assisted suicide as well as the states in which bills have been introduced. Current as of March 2015.
*To read CLI’s American Reports Series on assisted suicide, published April 2015, see here.
In 2011, doctors gave then-22-year-old Matt Davis a 10 percent chance of ever waking up from his coma. After suffering a severe traumatic brain injury from a motorcycle accident, the doctors advised his wife of only seven months, Danielle Josey Davis, to end his life support. “They said if it was them, they’d pull the plug. That’s what they’d want their family to do,” Danielle Davis told ABC News this week. Three months later, her husband awoke from the coma. “I wasn’t going to give up,” she wrote on their GoFundMe page.
The hopeful outcome for the Davis family stands in stark contrast to a troubling new report on end-of-life practices in Belgium, where euthanasia has been legal since 2002. According to the report published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), potentially more than one thousand deaths in Belgium were “hastened [by a doctor] without an explicit request from the patient.” A similar study by the same primary author showed that in 70% of the cases in which doctors decided to hasten death without consent, the patient was comatose.
On February 5, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) voted unanimously to strike down the blanket prohibition on physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia that was in place since 1992. The ruling of Carter v. Canada is historic in that it would permit assisted suicide for psychological illness as well as physical.
Because the SCC has not defined or limited what can be considered “psychological suffering,” many are concerned that the subjective language of the ruling makes it vulnerable to abuses. The closest “definition” for either psychological or physical conditions is that it be “grievous and irremediable (including an illness, disease or disability) that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.”
In a decision today with serious international ramifications, Canada’s highest court has overturned an absolute ban on assisted suicide/euthanasia and has given Parliament one year to create a “stringently limited, carefully monitored system of exceptions.”
The decision was unanimous, 9-0, and it should be viewed as a victory for advocates of assisted suicide and euthanasia. The ruling chisels away at a prior understanding in Canadian law of human life—even difficult or painful life—as sacred.
In the policy interplay between the United States and Canada, Americans can expect that “right-to-die” activists will be very motivated to use this Canadian case as an example, just as Canadian activists pointed to the “success” of “aid-in-dying” laws in Washington and Oregon.
Last week, an assisted suicide organization in Switzerland named Exit made the news with a report of an anomalous growth in membership. According to its vice president, a record number of about 60 to 100 new applicants poured in daily this July and August, instead of the expected lag in applications due to summer travel. All told, Exit’s members amount to about 75,000.
Among these, 459 chose to end their lives last year with the organization, which provides the lethal drugs. According to the report, this frightening number exceeds the previous year by about 100.
On Thursday, the Belgian Parliament voted by a significant majority to legalize euthanasia for terminally ill children. The new legislation will extend the existing euthanasia law in Belgium which decriminalized the practice for adults. The law will also legalize the practice to adults suffering from dementia.
On Monday night, state lawmakers in Vermont approved an assisted suicide bill which will make Vermont the fourth state in the union to legalize assisted suicide. Governor Peter Shumlin (D) has said that he plans on signing the bill within a week. Governor Shumlin has stated that legalizing assisted suicide “gives Vermonters who are suffering from a terminal illness and anticipating excruciating pain peace of mind in knowing that this is an option.”
The American Nurses Association has released a draft statement which comes out firmly against nurses’ participation in assisted suicide and euthanasia. The American Nurses Association is a national organization which works to advance “the nursing profession by fostering high standards of nursing practice, promoting the rights of nurses in the workplace, projecting a positive and realistic view of nursing, and by lobbying the Congress and regulatory agencies on health care issues affecting nurses and the public.”
Download PDF here: Massachusetts’ Death with Dignity Initiative_Questions Regarding Question 2
The 2012 “Act Relative to Death with Dignity” goes before Massachusetts voters on November 6. Question 2 asks voters directly whether to legalize physician-assisted suicide (PAS) or uphold existing state statutes. If voters affirm Question 2, Massachusetts would join Oregon, Washington and Montana as the only states in the U.S. to allow this practice. Recent studies on PAS in these states paint a revealing portrait of what would transpire in Massachusetts if voters approve Question 2. However, unlike citizens of Oregon who passed the first “Death with Dignity Act” in 1997, voters in Massachusetts have the benefit of learning the actual outcomes of such legislation in other states. Voters now have access to numerous studies that both vindicate opponents’ predictions about PAS and present even more concerns.
As required by law, the Public Health Department of the Oregon Health Authority has released its annual report for 2011 on physician-assisted suicides under that state’s Death with Dignity Act (DWDA).
The 1997 law required physicians involved in an assisted suicide to file a number of standardized forms, providing information on such particulars as sex, age, race and marital status of the patient; type of drug prescribed; reason why the patient was seeking assisted suicide; time between ingestion of drug and death, etc.