Legalizing assisted suicide has stalled at every level

24 Oct Legalizing assisted suicide has stalled at every level

Three years ago, Brittany Maynard’s viral video launched the issue of medically assisted suicide into the national spotlight. But while advocates have notched a few wins since then, they’ve also run up against some strong, bipartisan resistance.

By Paige Winfield Cunningham – The Washington Post

Two states — California and Colorado — have made it legal for doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients since Maynard, diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, publicized her decision to end her life. Physician-assisted suicide is legal in six states, including Vermont, Oregon, Washington and Montana, as well as the District.

Yet none of the 27 states where such measures were introduced this year passed them into law, according to tracking done by Compassion and Choices, a group that backs assisted suicide. The bills were either quashed in committee or passed one legislative chamber but not the other. That was the case even in states run by Democrats, including Connecticut, Rhode Island and Hawaii.

New York’s highest court upheld the state’s ban on assisted death in September, ruling unanimously that the terminally ill patients who brought the case don’t have a constitutional right to obtain life-ending drugs from a doctor.

Federal lawmakers, too, are pushing back against the controversial idea. A spending bill passed by the House last month would block the District’s assisted suicide law, which went into effect in February. Eleven House members – including six Democrats — have introduced a resolutioncondemning the practice.

“It undermines a key safeguard that protects our nation’s most vulnerable citizens, including the elderly, people with disabilities and people experiencing psychiatric diagnoses,” the resolution says. “Americans deserve better.”

Doctors’ groups remain overwhelmingly opposed to assisted suicide.Although the California Medical Association switched its stance from opposing to neutral in 2015, other state medical associations remain opposed. So does the American Medical Association, which considers it to be “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer” and poses “serious societal risks.”

A top concern about legalizing assisted suicide is that it could put financial pressure on patients to choose that option instead of treatment, if their insurer covers life-ending medication but not life-extending therapies. Another is that it could be chosen by patients just as they’re most susceptible to depression while they’re fighting aggressive illnesses.

That’s what prompted J.J. Hanson, a 36-year-old former staffer to New York Democratic governors Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson, to form a group called the Patients’ Rights Action Fund as he fights Stage 4 glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer (the same cancer diagnosed in Maynard and now Arizona’s GOP Sen. John McCain).

When Hanson was first diagnosed in May 2014, his doctors gave him four months to live. He has since responded well to aggressive treatment through chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy. But that didn’t happen right away. In the fifth month of treatment, while confined to bed in a weakened state, Hanson had thoughts of giving up, his wife Kristen told me.

The couple fears that had Hanson been able to get life-ending medications, he may have chosen to take them in those dark moments and missed out on subsequent years with his wife and two young sons. (Hanson was unable to speak with me because he’s fighting a reoccurrence after being in remission for two years.)

“We had no idea at the time he was having those kinds of thoughts,” Kristen said. “So when he saw this idea of assisted suicide being presented as a safe option only given to patients who are of sound mind, he would say no, that’s not a foolproof safeguard. Depression is something that is very difficult to diagnose.”

Still, Americans support legalizing physician-assisted suicide at historically high rates. A Gallup poll in May found that 67 percent of respondents say it should be allowed, up from 56 percent a decade ago.

Kristen said the issue isn’t one she and J.J. ever seriously considered until J.J. was facing a terminal illness. Now she’s convinced that public opinion could be shifted by explaining it could put emotionally vulnerable patients at risk — and persuade insurers to cover lethal medications instead of more expensive but lifesaving treatments.

“These are profit-driven businesses,” she said. “Are they going to do the right thing, or the cheap thing?”

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Source: The Washington Post