A bill to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide in Alaska has been introduced in the State Legislature. House Bill 99, sponsored by Anchorage Democrats Rep. Harriet Drummond, Rep. Andy Josephson and Rep. Max Gruenberg, would permit doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients for the purpose of suicide.
Opponents of the practice believe that patients – including those with terminal illness – need proper care, not destruction.
Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz, who leads 30,000 Catholics across Southcentral Alaska, strongly opposes the bill, saying it is not about granting people a so-called “right to die,” but pushing “doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to kill people.”
The Fifth Commandment forbids direct and intentional killing as gravely sinful. The Catholic Church also opposes suicide – doctor-prescribed or otherwise.
“We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of,” explains the Catholic Catechism.
“In a state with a suicide rate twice the national average, we are now proposing that it should be legal in some instances,” Archbishop Schwietz told the Catholic Anchor. “What kind of message does this send to our youth? In their young minds, they look at life without the practical experience that comes from age. They may view their situation as equally depressing or as terminal as someone with an illness. They see no way out. ‘If it’s okay for those who have no hope of regaining their health to kill themselves, why can’t I?’”
The proposed Alaska bill is part of a national drive by an outside group called Compassion & Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society. To date, doctor-prescribed suicide is legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana.
In a press release on her HB 99, Drummond lauded the Oregon law in particular, which has resulted in over 300 deaths since 1998.
PRESSURE TO DIE
Access Alaska, a disability advocacy group in Anchorage, posted a strongly worded rebuttal to doctor-prescribed suicide shortly after Drummond introduced HB 99.
“What looks to some like a choice to die begins to look more like a duty to die to many disability activists,” Access Alaska posted to its Facebook page. “If the values of liberty dictate that society legalizes assisted suicide, then legalize it for everyone who asks for it, not just the devalued old, ill and disabled. Otherwise, what looks like freedom is really only discrimination.”
The post was a quotation from Diane Coleman, president and CEO of Not Dead Yet¸ a national disability rights group that opposes doctor-prescribed suicide.
LAW OF THE LAND
In 2001, the Alaska Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there is no state constitutional right to doctor-prescribed suicide. One of the primary reasons noted by Justice Alex Bryner who wrote the opinion, was that the “terminally ill are a class of persons who need protection from family, social, and economic pressures, and who are often particularly vulnerable to such pressures because of chronic pain, depression, and the effects of medication.”
In a Feb. 9 press release, Drummond argued that doctor-prescribed suicide should be available to people predicted to die within six months who are “experiencing so much pain that their quality of life is completely degraded.”
Similarly, proponents of doctor-prescribed suicide in Oregon promised it would be used just for those suffering extreme pain. But since the law’s passage, there has been no documented case of doctor-prescribed suicide being used for untreatable pain. As Portland psychiatrist Dr. Greg Hamilton said, instead patients are being given lethal overdoses because of “psychological and social concerns, especially fears that they may no longer be valued as people or may be a burden to their families.”
Of the 341 patients who requested assisted suicide in Oregon from 1998 to 2007, 300 feared “losing autonomy” compared to 92 who “feared inadequate pain control [some victims had more than one reason]. This comes from an Oregon Health & Science University survey of family members of Oregon patients who requested doctor-prescribed suicide.
According to national studies, depression is the only factor that significantly predicts the request for doctor-prescribed suicide. But in 10 years, not one doctor-prescribed suicide victim in Oregon received psychiatric counseling.
SUICIDE LIMITS CHOICES
Jan McCoy believes “We need to learn how better to care for terminally ill patients not how to end that process. We just need to offer better things than death to people who are already in difficult circumstances.” McCoy is a member of the Respect Life Committee at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage and a former lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee.
When doctor-prescribed suicide is legal, patients don’t have more health care choices, they have fewer, she said, “because there’s too much pressure on patients that are terminally ill already to do away with themselves.”
In Oregon some pain-relieving and life-saving medications – including recommended but costly cancer treatments – are not paid for by the state health plan, but less-expensive suicide drugs are.
“The ‘right to die’ eventually does become a duty to die,” McCoy observed.