And now there are 11. Eleven jurisdictions in the United States have now legalized the act of suicide when it is the product of consultation between a terminally ill patient and a qualified medical person.
New Mexico’s legislature is the latest to approve such a bill called the End-of-Life Options Act. Other states—California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia—already have similar laws on the books.
Variously called the Right to Die, Death with Dignity or Assisted Suicide, these laws allow an incurably sick resident of the state who has fewer than six months to live, is over the age of 18, and found to be of sound mind to self-administer a fatal dose of prescription medicine to end their life. In Montana, this is allowed only after a court ruling.
There are no federal laws on patient-assisted suicide, or PAS, but 36 states outlaw it. Four states remain noncommittal.
Whether we are watching a new legalized suicide trend with the recent action in New Mexico isn’t known. But for sure, it is a controversial issue with a multitude of unanswerable questions.
One only need look north to see how this kind of law can morph into the almost inconceivable.
In Canada, where assisted suicide was made legal in 2016, legislators recently voted to amend their Medical Assistance in Dying Act to allow disabled people—both physically and mentally impaired (excluding advanced Alzheimer’s patients)—to choose death. The disabled need not be near imminent death under Canadian law; they simply must assert that they have a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” and believe they will die in the “reasonably foreseeable” future.
Aren’t we all going to die in the foreseeable future? And what group of people could conceivably be included next under this fatal umbrella? Prisoners with long sentences or only those on death row? Do we use it as a bargaining chip with the worst criminals, such as hardcore child sexual predators, offering them castration or PAS? Where does legalization of suicide stop?
Religious organizations, ethics scholars, and disabled advocacy groups have deep concerns about Canada’s move. They are worried about the ramifications and believe the infirm could become targets of mistreatment by caretakers and/or coerced into asking for suicide help. One Canadian journalist has asked the question, “Is Canada careening off a dangerous moral cliff?”
Harold Braswell, a professor of health care ethics at Saint Louis University, calls the Canadian move to widen the pool of those eligible to ask for PAS as “suicide-promoting.” He seeks to educate society about the real-life consequences.
“Theology can remind secular people like myself that it’s entirely possible to talk about disabled people without floating the idea of killing them or mentioning that, if I were to become one, I’d want to end my own life,” Braswell said.
PAS laws must certainly be a godsend for those of sound mind who are truly ready to go. And from the lessons we’ve learned from Oregon—where this nation’s first assisted suicide law was passed more than 20 years ago—it’s clear the law is publicly debated much more than it is actually used.
Data shows hundreds more deadly prescriptions are written than are acted upon. Between 1998, when the first Oregon resident took the legalized way out, and the end of last year, a total of 2,518 terminally ill Oregonians got the prescription. But 1,657 actually ingested the medication and died, or 66 percent of those who asked for help. It should be noted the number of Oregon PAS deaths goes up every year.
Who has the right to stand in the way of someone who is fatally ill and truly wants to hasten their own death? If you believe in individual rights, the answer is no one. But including the disabled and mentally ill surely cannot be the most ethical way to go.