Updates on 2019 Physician-Assisted Suicide Legislation
On February 7 legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide (PAS) advanced through the New Jersey Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. Opponents of bill S 1072 called the hearing a “charade,” noting that of the six “highly influential” physicians slated to speak in opposition to the legislation, only two were able to speak. Further, two New Jersey state senators – Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Senate sponsor Nicholas Scutari, who do not serve on the Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee – voted in place of Sen. Ronald Rice and Sen. Fred Madden in what some see as an abuse of power. Both Sens. Rice and Madden opposed the legislation in 2016. Matt Valliere, the executive director of the Patients Rights Action Fund, condemned the switcheroo in the following statement:
NJ Senate President Sweeney subverted the democratic process by ejecting Senators Rice and Madden, both Democrats, from their rightful seats on the health committee yesterday so that he and Senator Scutari could ramrod a dangerous assisted suicide bill through by voting yes, when Rice and Madden would have voted no, as they have in the past. The progressive constituency of those districts have been robbed of their right to representative government, all to forward an inherently discriminatory and dangerous public policy that puts a great number of vulnerable people at risk of deadly harm through mistakes, abuse, and coercion.
In coming weeks New Jersey assembly members are expected to vote on A 1504, and state senators are expected to vote on S 1072. Both pieces of legislation would legalize physician-assisted suicide, euphemistically referred to as “aid-in-dying,” further mischaracterizing assisted suicide as a legitimate end-of-life choice. Critics of the legislation worry that it could increase coercion, fail psychiatric patients, and create incentives for insurance companies to deny coverage for costly and complex life-saving treatments, while at the same time providing coverage for life-ending drugs. Multiple examples of this kind of abuse have been documented in Oregon, California, and Washington.
In response to a critic who argued that the legislation could increase the already high teen suicide rate, New Jersey lawmaker Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, a sponsor of the bill reportedly said, “[This is] totally different. There is no hope. This is about the end of life.” In sharp contrast to this statement, widow Kristen Hanson spoke to the Committee about her late husband, J.J. Hanson, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given a four-month prognosis. Kristen testified that her husband outlived his prognosis by four years, and that during that time they brought a second child, Lucas, into the world. In a video tribute to her late husband, Kristen recounts what their family could have missed if J.J. had given into despair in his darkest times:
So many beautiful moments we have shared as a family. James has gotten to know his daddy. He knows who his daddy is now. We have Lucas. The joys that we have been able to experience in these three and half years are too many to count. And when I stop for a moment to think of if we had listened, if we had given up hope, we would’ve missed out on so much. Lucas requires so much care and love right now. He’s dependent on me for everything. And I do it with joy. I take care of him with joy. And why is that so different at the end of life? Every moment we can share together is a gift.
There is no greater sign of hope than to bring a new baby into the world. J.J. lived out his final days courageously making memories with his wife and two children.
In addition to New Jersey legislation, the New Mexico House and Senate are expected to vote on two pieces of legislation, HB 90 and SB 153, that would legalize the practice of physician-assisted suicide. On February 14, the New Mexico House Judiciary Committee passed an amended version of HB 90. Among its many outrageous components, the New Mexico legislation gives non-physician health professionals the ability to prescribe lethal drugs to patients. The Nevada legislature has also introduced SB165, an extreme piece of legislation regarding physician-assisted suicide. Sadly, the Nevada Coalition for Suicide Prevention lists Nevada as having “the highest elder suicide rate in the country.”
The legislation from New Jersey, New Mexico, and Nevada comes on the heels of the release of Colorado’s second complete year PAS report: Colorado End-of-Life Options Act, Year Two 2018 Data Summary, with Updates to 2017 Data. The report exhibits the grim results of the law including a 74 percent increase from 2017 to 2018 in lethal drug prescriptions, and a 53 percent increase in prescriptions that were filled. The report also shows that the drugs are being used by predominantly white (94 percent), metro dwelling (64 percent) individuals.
Oregon and Washington, the two states with the longest-running physician-assisted suicide laws, consistently show that the top three reasons that individuals choose physician-assisted suicide are concerns about loss of autonomy, being less able to engage in enjoyable activities, and loss of dignity.
The emboldening of this perverse lobby should strengthen the resolve of medical professionals, especially those working in palliative care and hospice, to work tirelessly in support of individuals deemed to be nearing the end of life. Similarly, policy makers should work to provide solutions that encourage the growth of palliative care and incentivize those working with terminal patients to relieve pain, not kill. All innovation in health care must be at the service of the human person, not his destruction. Vulnerable patients need to be protected against the wiles of pro-suicide activists and the siren calls of medical professionals who promise pain management through death. This legislation will hurt vulnerable patients and further corrode the relationship of trust and healing between physician and patient.
Each of these pieces of legislation not only severely lacks safeguards to protect vulnerable patients but exchanges the opportunity for true compassion with the rot of abetting a vulnerable person in ending his or her life through suicide. True compassion demands love, and love does not encourage suicide. There is no limit to love’s forbearance.
Status of 2019 Physician-Assisted Suicide Legislation
States with Active Bills to Legalize or Expand Assisted Suicide in 2019
- Connecticut: SB 374, HB 5898
- Indiana: HB 1184, SB 300
- Iowa: Senate File 175
- Kansas: HB 2089
- Maryland: SB 311, HB 399
- Massachusetts: SD 395, HD 171
- Nevada: SB 165
- New Mexico: HB 90, SB 153
- New Jersey: A1504, S1072
- New York: A.2694; A30 (study committee bill)
- Oregon: HB 2217, HB 2232, SB 579, HB 2903 (expansion bills)
- Rhode Island: S.157
- Utah: HB 121
States with Active Bills to Prohibit Assisted Suicide in 2019
- Montana: HB 284 — Overturns the Baxter v. Montana court decision
- New York: S 647 — Prohibits insurance coverage for assisted suicide
States Which Have Defeated Bills/Initiatives to Legalize Assisted Suicide in 2019
- Virginia: HB 2713
- Arizona: HB 2408, HB2512, SB 1193
Hannah Howard, M.S., is a research associate at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.