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Assisted Suicide Legislation in the US

ve8QAd   |   May 01, 2007

Assisted-suicide and euthanasia proponents continue to make their presence known in state legislatures around the country. Each year for 14 years, Wisconsin legislators have introduced an assisted-suicide bill. So far, all have died in committee, but 2007’s version is still on the table. California, Hawaii, Arizona and Vermont have repeatedly rebuffed assisted-suicide proposals, but each has faced another proposal in 2007. Most of these bills are virtually identical to Oregon’s assisted suicide law. In Oregon, the only state to have legalized assisted-suicide, a patient diagnosed as terminally ill with six months or less to live can request a prescription for lethal drugs for the purpose of ending his life, and a physician can legally write such a prescription.

With most of these bills, the diagnosis of “terminally ill” and “six months or less to live,” is determined by the consulting doctor “within reasonable medical judgment,” and a second doctor is sometimes required to confirm the diagnosis. However, “terminally ill,” tends to be somewhat loosely defined, leaving the door open for a broader interpretation of terminal illness. Some of the bills require a physician who refuses to write such a prescription to refer the patient to a doctor who will comply with the patient’s request, forcing the original physician to be an unwilling accomplice in the death of a patient. Most bills do not require a physician or any other person to be with the patient when he self-administers the drugs. Oregon’s experience has shown that this makes it difficult to keep accurate records of who is actually dying as a result of the law. It also allows abuse of the system to go unreported, and complications with the drugs to go unrecorded.

Proponents of assisted suicide have declared their determination to continue introducing these bills until they pass. Their strategy includes using language that steers clear of the words “suicide,” “assisted suicide,” or “euthanasia”, substituting euphemisms such as “patient choice, “control at end of life,” “aid in dying,” “assisted death,” or “death with dignity” in order to frame their argument as a compassionate approach to death. Their strategy will be successful if they can paint those who want to kill the sick and dying as being more compassionate than those who want to treat the sick and dying.

The success of the opposition so far can be explained by the formation of an otherwise unlikely alliance. When Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act was passed by voters in 1994 with a 2% margin, the only vocal opponents were the Catholic Church and pro-life groups. Alone, they were not enough to hold back the tide. After Oregon’s success, disability rights activists, typically liberal on issues where the Catholic Church and pro-lifers are typically conservative, became active opponents when they realized that these laws posed a serious threat to the disabled. They have since been joined by medical professional organizations, civil-rights activists, and advocates for the poor, and have sent an effective message to state legislatures up to this point. But proponents of assisted suicide are not going away. The most recent activity in states facing such proposals is listed below.

Arizona House Bill 2572 (HB 2572) “Aid in Dying” bill, authored by Rep. Linda Lopez (D) and a team of eight other Democrats, was introduced on Jan. 24, 2007. This bill would make it legal for a doctor to prescribe lethal drugs to a person diagnosed as terminally ill with six months or less to live. A second bill introduced by Lopez and 7 other Democrats is House Bill 2357 (HB 2357), titled “Terminally ill patients; suffering; control,” which was introduced on Jan. 22, 2007. Both are currently in the Health, Judiciary, and Rules Committees. This is the fourth time Lopez has introduced bills to legalize assisted suicide since 2003.

California Assembly Bill 374 (AB 374) “Compassionate Choices Act ,” authored by Rep. Patty Berg (D) and Rep. Lloyd Levine (D), was introduced Feb. 15, 2007. This bill would make it legal for a doctor to prescribe lethal drugs to a person diagnosed as terminally ill with six months or less to live. It also allows a conservator to make a life or death decision for another person. The bill has the backing of Fabian Nunez (D), the Speaker of the Assembly, increasing the likelihood that it could be passed. It was approved by the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee by a 7-3 vote on March 27, 2007, and will be considered next by the Appropriations Committee. This bill marks the 6 th time since 1988 that assisted-suicide advocates have attempted to legalize assisted suicide in California. Those committed to preventing passage of the bill are a coalition called Californians Against Assisted Suicide (CAAS).

Hawaii Senate Bill 1995 (SB 1995) “Death With Dignity,” authored by Sen. Colleen Hanabusa (D), would make it legal for a physician to prescribe lethal medication to a patient diagnosed as terminally ill with six months or less to live. This is the fifth attempt to pass such legislation, the most recent being defeated in 2005. Having passed its First Reading in the Senate on Jan. 26, 2007, SB 1995 was then referred to the Health Committee and the Judiciary Committee. A similar House Bill (HB 675), “Relating to Death With Dignity,” failed in the Health Committee on February 8, 2007. Another Hawaii bill proposal contains an insidious invitation to euthanasia. Hawaii Senate Bill 1104 (SB 1104) “Relating to Manslaughter” authored by Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland (D), creates an exception to the offense of manslaughter for a medical caregiver who has the authority to administer medication to his terminally ill patient. It does not allow the caregiver to assist the patient in committing suicide. This bill was introduced on Jan. 19, 2007, and is currently in the Health and Judiciary committees.

Vermont House Bill 44 (H.0044) entitled “Patient Choice and Control at End-of-Life” was authored by Rep. David Zuckerman (P), Rep. William Aswad (D), Rep. Betty Nuovo (D), and Rep. Richard Hube (R) and was introduced on Jan. 12, 2007. It allows a terminally ill patient, with six months or less to live, to request life-ending drugs from a physician. It was rejected by a House vote of 82-63 on March 19, 2007. Its companion is SenateBill 63 (S. 0063), authored by Sen. Diane Snelling (R), Sen. Claire Ayer (D), Sen. Susan Bartlett (D), and Sen. James Condos (D), introduced Jan. 30, 2007, and then referred to the Health and Welfare Committee, where it currently remains. Assisted suicide bills were also introduced in 2003 and 2005 and never made it out of committee.

Wisconsin Senate Bill 151 (SB 151) “Death With Dignity,” author Sen. Fred Risser (D), co-sponsored by Rep. Frank Boyle (D), would allow terminally ill patients with six months or less to live to request life-ending drugs from their physicians. This bill passed its First Reading in the Senate on April 19, 2007, and has been referred to the committee on Public Health, Senior Issues, Long Term Care and Privacy. Its companion bill in the House is Assembly Bill 298 (AB 298), “Death With Dignity,” author Rep. Frank Boyle (D), co-sponsored by Senator Risser. It passed its First Reading in the Assembly on April 30, 2007 and was referred to the committee on Judiciary and Ethics. Risser and Boyle have introduced similar legislation in session after session for the past 14 years. So far none has made it out of committee.

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