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Assisted Suicide: A Slippery Slope

During the campaign to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Oregon in 1997, supporters said it would simply give people in protracted pain a “death with dignity.” Opponents argued that the law had no safeguards, would be abused, and that other states would soon follow suit. Those warnings have proven to be true:

Additional states legalize assisted suicide: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and California now allow the deadly practice. In the November election, Colorado passed an assisted suicide law, modeled after California’s, with an Orwellian title “The End of Life Options Act.” Supporters outspent opponents two to one. The law does not require doctors to oversee patients as they take lethal drugs, nor mandate psychiatric evaluations. Ironically, 32 years ago, then Colorado governor Richard Lamm said the terminally ill have “a duty to die and get out of the way.”
In early November, the Washington D.C. City Council passed a bill to legalize assisted suicide by a vote of 11-2. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said she will not veto the bill, modeled after Oregon’s law. The bill passed over the objections of black residents, disability rights groups, medical professionals and others who are afraid the new law will threaten the elderly, the chronically ill, and the poor.

“Regular” suicide rates rise: According to the Centers for Disease Control, after years of decline, the U.S. suicide rate has risen 24 percent over the last 15 years for everyone between the ages of 10 and 74. This timing closely coincides with the passing of the nation’s first physician-assisted law in Oregon. A 2012 report for the Oregon Health Authority found the state’s overall suicide rate had risen 41 percent higher than the national rate.

There is a recognized suicide contagion effect. World Health Organization guidelines warn against media glamorization or normalization of suicide by the media that could lead to more suicides, yet People magazine devoted its cover story to the suicide of Brittany Maynard.

Mentally ill patients euthanized: The Washington Post (October 19, 2016) reports that Belgium’s Federal Commission on the Control and Evaluation of Euthanasia statistics reveal that in the 2014-2015 period, 124 of the 3,950 euthanasia cases in Belgium involved persons diagnosed with a “mental and behavioral disorder.” This figure represents 3.1 percent of all 2014-2015 euthanasia cases (equivalent to about 3,500 in the United States). Over those years, lethal injections were given to five non-terminally ill people with schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder, dementia, and depression. There are reports that psychiatrists have euthanized people in their twenties and thirties with mental illnesses. Sixty-five Belgian mental health professionals, ethicists, and physicians published a call to ban euthanasia of the mentally ill.

California’s assisted suicide law, which took effect on June 9, guarantees institutionalized mentally ill patients with a terminal diagnosis access to assisted suicide. Wesley Smith, an attorney and end-of-life care expert, warns, “This boggles the mind. The regulation puts the state in the business of directly causing the deaths of mentally ill patients under court-ordered custodial care. It goes beyond merely legalizing assisted suicide; it elevates euthanasia access for the institutionalized mentally ill into a court-enforceable right — all without public debate, passage through the usual legislative process, or so much as a news story to alert the people of California that the scope of their new assisted suicide law has been radically extended.”

Insurance companies deny treatment drugs but pay for suicide pills: Prior to the passage of California’s assisted suicide law, Stephanie Packer, a wife and mother of four, was told by her insurance company it would pay for a less toxic chemotherapy drug recommended by her doctor. On October 20, 2016, the Washington Times reported that the insurance company is now refusing to cover Packer’s medication. However, the company said it will cover suicide pills that cost $1.20. Several years ago, Oregon residents Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup were denied medical treatment but offered suicide drugs.

Numbers rising above projections: Last summer, Canada passed a suicide law that has been called “the most wide open assisted suicide bill in the world.” The Quebec euthanasia commission reports that during the first seven months of the law there were 262 reported suicides. Quebec’s Health Minister, Gaetan Barrette, had expected about 100 deaths. “It’s almost three times that … that in itself is surprising to me.” Despite his surprise, the minister is seriously considering eliminating the requirement of securing a second opinion from an objective and independent doctor.

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