In September of this year, Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA) signed a bill legalizing the prescription of drugs to end the lives of terminally ill patients, adding his state to the growing number of states that allow this. Assisted suicide laws exist in Washington, Montana, Vermont, and Oregon, the latter’s law being the model for California’s, which will have to be reapproved in 10 years and requires doctors to confirm a patient’s wish to die in a private consultation. However, in Oregon, if a patient is mentally handicapped, or in some other way prevented from conveying that they wish to die, they can be administered lethal drugs as “medical treatment”. The option is only open to patients expected to die in the next six months in California.
Those in favor of assisted suicide argue that everyone should have the power to die in the manner they wish, and that it is inhumane to force those suffering to continue to live for a short period of time. Some opposed argue that, although one should be able to exercise autonomy over his or her body, in practice difficulties could arise that endanger this freedom of the patient: since the official decision between natural death and assisted suicide must be made without the patient’s family present, a doctor has the power to coerce the patient into agreeing to “transition out of life” at his hands, or conversely, could refuse to prescribe lethal drugs to a patient whose family is encouraging them to request such treatment.
Those opposed to assisted suicide on religious and or philosophical grounds stand by the concept of the dignity of human life, which says that only God should have the power to take away. Those dying are particularly vulnerable and at least some will be more or less forced into take lethal drugs either by family members eagerly awaiting their end and the burden they put on them, or by economics, as a single pill is much less expensive than a longer hospital stay and or more treatment. In fact, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UC Irvine states, “As soon as this is introduced, it immediately becomes the cheapest and most expedient way to deal with complicated end-of-life situations. You’re seeing the push for assisted suicide from generally white, upper-middle-class people, who are least likely to be pressured. You’re not seeing support from the underinsured and economically marginalized. Those people want access to better health care.” He writes that in Oregon there have been cases in which the Oregon Health Plan was found to refuse coverage of potentially life extending cancer treatments in favor of the much less expensive $50 assisted suicide medication.
While the national percentage of Americans finding assisted suicide morally acceptable rose from 45 percent in 2013 to 56 percent in 2015, the percentage in Oregon decreased by four percentage points from 2001 to 2013. Dr. Kheriaty also calls into question the effect legalization of assisted suicide has on the rest of the population, and particularly what message it sends to young people about the value of human life and suicide as a means of dealing with pain and suffering. The suicide rate was 35% higher in Oregon than the national average, as of 2010, and Switzerland and Belgium, countries with legal assisted suicide, have the highest suicide rates in Europe.
Catholic nursing homes and hospice facilities will be legally required to permit assisted suicide, a practice which directly goes against Catholic teaching not to mention the conscience of many Catholics as well as non-Catholics working in those facilities. The results may be that assisted suicide will happen under their care, or that these Catholic facilities will be fined or shut down if they refuse to comply with the law.