Vermont is the first East Coast state to pass legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide (euthanasia) allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients. This brings an end to a 10-year battle in the state. Washington and Oregon approved their rules through referendum, and Montana through a court order. Are the effects of this battle changing society’s moral beliefs?
Last year, a similar proposal was turned down after a fierce campaign in which the Church, the professionals, and a coalition of advocates for the disabled and the elderly, and the anti-abortion groups turned Massachusetts voters against the plan.
The national significance for the bill is tough to define, but it could open avenues to boosting similar policies in states that have long opposed them. Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the bill into a law even if supporters promise to seek its repeal. He was more discreet about the implications saying that Vermont’s action will influence the dialogue acknowledging that his state’s route to legalizing assisted suicide was brought about by a decade long internal debate.
While it is viewed as sanctioned suicide to deal with end-of-life health care issues, Shumlin said he supports what backers call the ‘death with dignity law’.
Assisted suicide becoming more legally accepted
Physician-assisted suicide is not common in Washington and Oregon. From 1998 to 2011, Oregoneans obtained around 935 prescriptions for coma and life-ending drugs and 596 used them. In Washington, about 103 residents obtained prescription in 2011, and 70 took the drugs.
U.S. law has drawn a sharp distinction between physician-assisted suicide and withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment. People could easily confuse unwanted medical care from a prescription for a lethal dose of drugs even for patients dying from metastatic cancer.
The Vermont law allows doctors to prescribe lethal medication within six months of dying. However, the patients will go through several evaluations to be considered fit to take decisions. It will resemble the Oregon model which has built-in safeguards, including a patient’s request saying that they wish to die, and a concurring opinion from a second doctor confirming that the patient has six months to live.
In Oregon and Washington, patients taking advantage of the ‘Death with Dignity Law’, use the drug pentobarbital; a barbiturate dissolved in liquid or semi-liquid which takes only five minutes for a patient to get into a coma; the average length of time until death is two hours.
Is society changing its moral beliefs?
Is society’s recognition of the right to assisted suicide changing its moral beliefs just like the recognition for same-sex marriage that once elicited condemnation? Or is the law relaxing the differentiation and being revised to reflect those ethical views?
Dramatic and rapid developments in technology and medicine have given doctors the power to save lives and reduce the suffering of those afflicted with painful diseases. While medicine struggles to pull more people away from the edge of death, the plea to end the lives of the deteriorated and tortured lives also grows.
Supporters of the legislation legalizing assisted-suicide, claims that everyone has the moral right to choose what they want to do with their lives, and that they have the right to end it as well. But, for people who ask for help in exercising their right to die, should their wishes be respected? Is it inhuman to refuse their pleas if they are afflicted with excruciatingly painful death and terminal diseases?
Assisted-suicide appeals to our capacity for compassion and obligation to support an individual’s choices as they speak to us of a fundamental reverence for life. Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont only allow assisted suicide for the terminally ill.
Written by: Janet Grace Ortigas