Six states—Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, Kansas, Hawaii, and Massachusetts—are looking to pass bills legalizing assisted suicide, which has never made it through a legislature despite 122 attempts in 25 states.
Physician-assisted suicide is legal only in Oregon and Washington state, and in both cases the law passed through ballot measures. After assisted suicide became legal in Oregon in 1997, proponents expected a domino effect among other states, but it wasn’t until 11 years later that Washington joined in passing a similar law.
Proponents say a 2009 court decision in Montana also allows for assisted suicide, but it only gives doctors who assist in a patient’s suicide a potential defense to prosecution for homicide. Yesterday a Montana Senate committee tabled a measure that would have legalized assisted suicide.
According to a 2011 Gallup poll, Americans were almost evenly divided on support for assisted suicide. Forty-eight percent said it was morally acceptable. But in Oregon and Washington, far fewer people actually choose to take an early out, given the chance.
Both states allow for assisted suicide when a patient has six months or less to live. But as with all prognoses, life expectancy for the terminally ill can be difficult to pin down.
Jeanette Hall of King City, Ore., supported assisted suicide, until she had the opportunity to take her own life. In a letter to the editor of Montana’s Ravalli Republic newspaper, Hall said she voted to legalize assisted suicide in her state in 1997. Three years later she was diagnosed with cancer and told she only had six months to a year to live.
“I knew that our law had passed, but I didn’t know exactly how to go about doing it,” she wrote. “I did not want to suffer, and I did not want to do radiation.” She asked her doctor, Ken Stevens, to help her, but he encouraged her to “not give up,” and Hall decided to fight for her life.
“It is now 12 years later,” she wrote. “If Stevens had believed in assisted suicide, I would be dead. I thank him and all my doctors for helping me choose ‘life with dignity.’ Assisted suicide should not be legal.”
Last year marked the highest number of assisted suicides in Oregon, with 77. The numbers have slowly increased over the years: 71 in 2011, 65 in 2010, and 59 in 2009.
The data found most of the terminally ill patients who took their own lives were 65 or older, white, well-educated, and had private health insurance. Seattle lawyer Margret Dore, the president of Choice is an Illusion, noted that people with these attributes are usually wealthy, which often leads to an increased risk of financial abuse and exploitation. Coupled with assisted suicide’s lack of oversight—healthcare providers were present in only 11 of the 77 deaths—it is possible some of the deaths could be attributed to relatives eager to get their inheritance.
“Oregon’s law is written so as to allow such abuse to occur without anyone knowing,” Dore wrote in her blog. “The new report is statistically consistent with elder abuse.”
Only two of the people who died by assisted suicide were referred for a psychiatric evaluation. Patients who are depressed or feeling hopeless can request an assisted suicide without any questions asked.
Even the Oregonian recommended to Washington state not to pass the assisted-suicide measure in 2008. After 10 years of experience, the newspaper’s editorial board pointed out the physician-assisted suicide program had not been transparent, that “a coterie of insiders run the program, with a handful of doctors and others deciding what the public may know.”
“Our fundamental objection is the same it has always been—that it’s wrong to use physicians and pharmacists to hasten patients’ deaths,” the board said.