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Why assisted suicide fails

Over the past three years, one of the most pressing issues faced by people with disabilities and the medical community in California was assisted suicide. Each of the past three years, two legislators have consistently introduced and re-introduced legislation to legalize this practice. In each of these attempts, these extremely fervent supporters of assisted suicide have fallen far short of their goal. In fact, the opposition to assisted suicide has grown progressively stronger, as evidenced by an increasing number of legislators that are uncomfortable with the flaws in this proposed policy. In each of these years, and in fact dating back to 1999, an assisted suicide legalization bill has not been brought to the Assembly floor due to a lack of support. In 2006, it was voted down in the State Senate Judiciary Committee.
Assisted suicide supporters have predictably tried to blame their consistent failure on everything from Jack Kevorkian’s recent release from prison to some all powerful push from the religious community. They neglect to acknowledge the inherent dangers in approving such legislation which have led 20 other states to reject such flawed public policy. Thankfully, in California many legislators, physicians, disability and poverty advocates as well as progressives have looked beyond the superficial rhetoric to reveal the many and deep problems with the proposed legislation. While the authors seek to portray the opposition as “anti-choice,” this is a disservice to the many progressives and others who have serious concerns about the risks such legislation poses to poor people, people with disabilities, and those who are most disenfranchised in terms of health care, family and community supports.
One must ask, why does assisted suicide continue to fail?
Assisted suicide is impossible to control. All of the California bills to legalize this practice were constructed so that all oversight is specifically weak, thus enabling uncomplicated future development. The state of California is prohibited from investigating any questionable deaths or complications; all assisted suicide procedures are self-reported by those participating in the event; and, if procedures and protocols are not followed, there is no recourse for the family or law enforcement. As in Oregon where this process is legal, the advocacy group promoting assisted suicide would be its sole administrator. Such facts are not lost on legislators uncomfortable with these proposals.
These bills have been initially written to establish a six-month terminal prognosis as the benchmark to receive an oral assisted suicide prescription. Arguments in favor of this benchmark proclaim that this timeframe enables patients to receive their fatal overdose before pain becomes too great or they lose functional autonomy. A deductive mind can reason that it is not then a stretch to argue for the same access to the assisted suicide option for those with disabilities or
painful chronic disease. A future legislator or court could surely take a less discriminating approach to the application of assisted suicide. Clearly, this is what has happened in the Netherlands. While current legislators may feel they have purely altruistic intentions and truly want to limit the exercise of the assisted suicide option, they are right to be apprehensive about the future.
As I have met with many legislators on this issue, we talk through the current availability of palliative end of life care, the need to improve patient and family knowledge of available options as well as physicians’ use of humane and sensitive end-of-life care, pain management, disability, and the profound change this legislation prescribes for the medical profession. Legislators largely understand that assisted suicide is a Pandora’s Box: Once opened, it drastically changes the way we deal with end-of-life, chronic disease, or disability.
If the legislation passed, as one of your treatment options, doctors would be required to tell patients that assisted suicide is an option. The frightening portrait of a future with assisted suicide is not lost on the legislators. Add into this equation the cost-versus-care pressures in our healthcare system, the opposition from progressive workers’ and uninsured rights groups, hospice organizations, disability rights, oncologist associations, and the California Medical Association, and assisted suicide continues to remain a failed issue unlikely to encounter success in California. The people of California deserve to have their Legislators act on the many important issues before us rather than having to respond to those, such as assisted suicide, which have been presented over and over and been shelved for good reason. It’s time to move on–there is too much of the people’s work left to be done.


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