Since the California Legislature rushed into law the authority for doctors to provide lethal drug prescriptions to sick Californians, proponents hoped it would create a cascading effect in other states and jurisdictions.
It has not.
In the seven months of 2016 since a physician has been allowed to give terminally ill patients a lethal dose of drugs, some 191 Californians received the prescriptions and 111 died. Data for the other 80 and for 2017 is not available. (One of the key arguments against physician-assisted suicide is that no one knows were the dangerous drugs end up if the patient does not go through with assisted suicide.)
The sobering and dangerous aspects of Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS) were brushed aside in California’s rush to legalize the practice. But this year the nation collectively hit the brakes on new assisted suicide legislation.
In 2017, some 27 states considered legalizing PAS; but not a single one did so, though some came close.
Moreover, protections for life were put in place by two states. Arizona placed into law conscience protection so medical providers will not have to participate in assisted suicide if it ever becomes legal in the state. And Alabama enacted a full ban on assisted suicide.
And in September New York’s highest court ruled unanimously that there is no constitutional right to assistance in committing suicide.
“Although New York has long recognized a competent adult's right to forgo life-saving medical care, we reject the plaintiffs' argument that an individual has a fundamental constitutional right to aid-in-dying as they define it,” the court said.
In Congress a push began to alert the nation to assisted suicide’s risks. H. Con. Res. 80 by Rep. Brad Westrup (R-OH), emphasizes that assisted suicide “puts everyone, including those most vulnerable, at risk of deadly harm and undermines the integrity of the health care system.”
Two California Members of Congress, Reps. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) and Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), are co-sponsors.
A visible and compelling leader in the fight against suicide assistance is J.J. Hanson, a Marine Corps Iraq war vet. Three years ago Hanson was told he had four months to live. Three doctors told him nothing could be done. His grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme is the same cancer that prompted Californian Brittany Maynard to become the media figurehead for California’s political campaign to authorize PAS two years ago.
But Hanson resisted the blunt diagnosis, and fought on for his wife and young family. Soon after the initial diagnosis his cancer went into remission. Hanson has used the time to enrich his family’s life, including the birth of a second son; he also joined the fight against doctor-aided suicide proposals in New York and New Jersey.
“I’ve seen the danger of assisted suicide,” Hanson wrote recently in the Washington Post. “If suicide becomes a normal medical treatment for terminally ill patients, lives will be tragically shortened, as patients who might have outlived their prognoses by months or even years kill themselves prematurely.”
Hanson’s cancer remains, but his family has had three more years of his life.
On the opposite side, the well-funded advocates of legalizing suicide have stepped up their efforts. In addition to pushing for legislative action in many states and filing court cases, PAS groups are infiltrating medical and health-care organizations seeking support.
The nation’s largest medical group, the American Medical Association, currently opposes doctor involvement in patient suicide. But PAS could come up for discussion at the AMA’s meeting in Hawaii this month.
Yet as debate in the medical community proceeds, a small number of doctors in California are advertising their services as assisted suicide “go-to” facilitators.
One promotion features a doctor who bills himself as an PAS provider talking “...about physician aid in dying, terminal sedation, and voluntarily stopping eating and drinking. Ticket price includes an outdoor buffet lunch.”
The more caring, compassionate and responsible message is emerging from physicians such as Dr. Ira Byock of the Institute for Human Caring of Providence St. Joseph Health.
In a seminal article for Health Progress, the journal of the Catholic Health Association, Dr. Byock argues:
“There is still time to write a narrative in which hastened death progressively fades from relevance as American society courageously owns up to long-standing failures in basic medical care and social responsibilities, builds programs and adopts policies that make dependably excellent care routine. We can earn people's confidence in being well cared for, their comfort assured, their loved ones supported and their dignity and worth affirmed through the end of life. The pen is in our hands.”
Read the complete article from Dr. Byock: “We Must Earn Confidence in End-of-Life Comfort Care.”