Assisted suicide movement gains newer ground

February 23, 2017

The following article appeared in the Washington Times on February 23, 2017:

Supporters of physician-assisted suicide say their efforts compare favorably with movements for same-sex marriage, medical marijuana and other social issues that scored major political victories in short order.

And that trend will continue to accelerate as more states take up the issue, says Kim Callinan, chief program officer for Compassion & Choices, which has spearheaded aid-in-dying legislation at the local level.

“We absolutely see a growing number of people and a growing number of states who are interested in seeing the passage of end-of-life options or medical aid in dying at the state level,” Ms. Callinan said. “And we do anticipate seeing continued progress moving forward.”

The movement’s latest victory came in the District, where a law went into effect on Saturday authorizing doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients with less than six months to live who wish to die. Republicans in Congress were unable to pass a disapproval resolution in time to strike down the city’s law.

Three of the seven jurisdictions where physician-assisted suicide is permissible have legalized the practice in the last two years. The gap between the first state to legalize the practice, Oregon, and the second, Washington, was 14 years.

Twenty-one states are considering similar legislation this year. Ms. Callinan said efforts in Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey and New York are “promising.”

But Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser for The Catholic Association, attributed the movement’s success to a lack of education about how physician-assisted suicide harms society’s most vulnerable populations.

“I think it’s a reflection of how much education needs to be done on this issue, because people do not realize the implications of this on the disabled, on the poor, on the mentally ill and on the depressed,” Ms. Ferguson said. “That’s what it’s a reflection of — that we need more education on this.”

Surveys suggest such legislation is popular, even among Christians and Republicans.

According to a 2016 Gallup Poll, 69 percent of Americans “say that a doctor should be allowed to end a patient’s life by painless means if the patient requests it, up from 36 percent in 1950.”

Michael J. Strauss, a preventive medicine physician in Rockville, Maryland, has testified in favor of aid-in-dying legislation there. He said the bill enjoys bipartisan support because death does not discriminate by political party.

“The old adage in our movement is, everyone is one family member’s bad death away from supporting this,” Dr. Strauss said. “As the population gets older, I think you’re going to see this turn in many more states over the next few years.”

Ms. Callinan traced physician-assisted suicide’s popularity to society’s general inability to care for an aging population.

“You’re seeing more and more people having a personal experience at the end of life with what death looks like as baby boomers are starting to retire and people are taking care of their aging parents,” Ms. Callinan said. “So you’re seeing a problem growing and a system not supporting that growth.”

Still, Ms. Ferguson said predictions of the law’s inevitability are premature. She pointed to a 2012 Massachusetts ballot measure that was opposed by prominent Democrats, including the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s widow, and ultimately was rejected in a close vote.

“This is not an issue that cuts along partisan lines,” Ms. Ferguson said. “You have some libertarians who are hands-off, but you have many Democrats who think, ‘Wait a minute, what’s the effect on the vulnerable? What’s the effect on the little guy?’”

Lawmakers could aim to halt the physician-assisted suicide movement at the state level, where the Republican Party controls 33 governorships and both houses in 32 legislatures. Democrats have unified governments in six states: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon and Rhode Island.

Compassion & Choices also is advancing aid-in-dying through litigation, but is hampered by the 1997 Vacco v. Quill U.S. Supreme Court decision, which left the question to the states.

The nomination of federal Judge Neil Gorsuch to the highest court also may present an obstacle to the aid-in-dying movement.

Judge Gorsuch argued in his 2006 book “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia” that Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law makes a “legal discrimination based on physical health (the terminally ill versus everyone else)” and “seems a candidate for heightened review.”

“Whatever the doctrinal rubric ultimately employed to review Oregon’s discrimination between terminally ill and healthy persons, a nontrivial legal argument can be made that the law fails to pass muster,” Judge Gorsuch wrote.

Ms. Callinan said Congress should reject his nomination to the Supreme Court.

“We have absolutely, actively opposed the nomination of Neil Gorsuch,” she said. “He not only has personal opposition to [aid in dying], but his book very clearly outlines legal strategies for why he believes that the Supreme Court has not yet decided on this issue and how it can be overturned.”

Ms. Ferguson said the success of the physician-assisted suicide movement may provoke an equal and opposite reaction.

“I am hopeful that a broad coalition of people will respond to this growing movement, that a broad coalition of disability rights groups, advocates of the mentally ill and advocates of the poor would band together to speak out against the corrosive effects that this will have on them,” she said. “I think we all need to speak out on this issue.”

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