A Time for Choosing in Colorado

Tim Bradley  

Voters in Colorado will determine whether physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is to be legalized in their state when they head to the polls this November.

 

California, Oregon, Washington, and Vermont are the only other states that have voted to allow physicians to assist their patients in committing suicide. In Montana, the practice was effectively decriminalized (without immunity from investigation) via a state court decision.

 

Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams announced on August 15 that the proposal will be on the ballot. The news comes in the same year that the state legislature declined—for the second time in the last two years—to pass a bill that would have made Colorado the fifth state to legalize assisted suicide.

 

Initiative 145, known as the “Medical Aid in Dying Proposal,” will allow citizens diagnosed with a terminal illness to receive prescription drugs from their physicians in order to end their lives.

 

If approved, the proposal will amend state statutory law (not the state constitution) to “permit any mentally capable adult Colorado resident who has a medical prognosis of death by terminal illness within six months to receive a prescription from a willing licensed physician for medication that can be self-administered to bring about death.” It will also require that two licensed physicians confirm the medical prognosis, the patient receives information about care and treatment options, and the patient’s decision is voluntary and informed.

 

The proposal made its way onto the ballot following a verification of the signatures submitted on behalf of the initiative on August 5. For a proposal to make the ballot in Colorado, the number of signatures collected in support of it must exceed five percent of the total number of votes cast in the most recent election for the office of Secretary of State. A review of the signatures by Secretary Williams’ office indicated that the measure had garnered five and a half percent of the total cast in the last election.

 

The Colorado proposal comes at a dangerous time for opponents of PAS and euthanasia. Momentum towards legalization of PAS has increased in the United States in recent years. Oregon was the first state to legalize the deadly practice, in 1994, but other states have followed with greater frequency in recent years: Washington, in 2008; Vermont, in 2013; and most recently California, in 2015. And just this year, Canada acted to legalize PAS and euthanasia following a court ruling in 2015.

 

If history is any guide, Colorado’s decision may be particularly important for the future of the legal status of PAS and euthanasia in this country. In 1967, for example, Colorado was the first state to reform its abortion law to allow for abortion not only when the life or physical health of the mother was at risk, but also when her mental health was at risk, when the baby had a physical or mental defect, or when the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. By the time Roe v. Wade was handed down just six years later, in 1973, a total of 17 states had liberalized their abortion laws.

 

Yet Colorado’s PAS measure is opposed by various groups, including religious organizations, medical professionals, estate lawyers, and disability rights groups.

 

If the proposal is approved, one certain result is that the number of deaths by assisted suicide will increase in Colorado. In Oregon, where the practice was legalized in 1994 and went into effect in 1997, the number of physician-assisted suicides has steadily increased, from 16 in 1998 to an all-time high of 132 in 2015. In Washington, the number of reported assisted suicides increased by 32 percent from 2015 to 2016, from 126 to 166.

 

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Measures such as Initiative 145 should be strongly opposed for many reasons: they extend false mercy and compassion to those who are vulnerable to seeking assisted suicide, they corrupt the medical profession, and they profoundly change the fabric of the community wherein they are enacted.

 

When a person is diagnosed with a terminal illness and told that they have less than six months to live, the anguish they experience may be profound. This does not mean that the law should encourage or permit them to seek to end their lives prematurely with the help of a licensed physician.

 

A person is not obligated to pursue disproportionate means of preserving their life if they do not judge the treatment offers a reasonable expectation of benefit. But there is a wide gap between choosing not to pursue extraordinary means of preserving one’s life and taking affirmative steps to end one’s life prematurely. People in these situations deserve true compassion that seeks to alleviate their suffering while fostering respect for life.

 

The Colorado proposal does not require psychiatric evaluation of all patients requesting lethal drugs, leaving people suffering from depression and other mental disorders in a particularly vulnerable state.

 

Laws like this proposed one also corrupt the medical profession. They encourage physicians to begin to view terminally ill patients as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved. As Richard Doerflinger and Carlos Gomez note, “assisted suicide and good palliative care are not only distinct—they are radically opposed to each other.” It is not uncommon for some terminally ill patients to experience suicidal thoughts, but such patients typically respond well to treatments for depression and pain. “Such treatment responds to the underlying reasons why patients ask for death, instead of treating the patient himself as the problem to be eliminated,” they write.

 

Laws legalizing assisted suicide also discourage the medical community from pursuing the best palliative care. Doctors should seek to eliminate pain, not eliminate persons.

 

Finally, laws like this one change the fabric of communities. The law is a teacher, and laws legalizing assisted suicide teach people the dangerously flawed notion that some lives are not worth living. They encourage citizens to view their own lives differently, and to feel guilty when they require care from others. The effects of these law on the attitudes of the elderly, disabled, and mentally ill—all of whom are vulnerable to seeing themselves as burdens on their community—are pernicious. This law will make it more difficult for the people of Colorado to understand—and to live as if—each life is precious.

 

The people of Colorado have the chance to stand up for life when they go to the polls this November. And in campaigning against Initiative 145, its opponents might do well to take a page out of the playbook of assisted suicide advocates: put grassroots pressure on medical institutions that may be forced to go along with the proposal, should it become law, and reach out to and educate doctors and estate lawyers so that they are in a position to counsel ill people about alternatives to assisted suicide.

 

Tim Bradley is a research associate at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

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