A recent report on the Oregon assisted suicide law shows that the “safeguards” meant to protect vulnerable patients are meaningless. The Oregon Death with Dignity Act (DWDA) passed by a slim margin (51% to 49%) in 1994. The law, which was delayed by an injunction until it was implemented in 1997, was the first of its kind in the nation. Since then, California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia have passed similar legislation under pressure from assisted suicide groups. These states, as well as nations around the world, have looked to Oregon as a model, because DWDA has been in effect for more than 20 years.
But a shocking report published earlier this year reveals that DWDA is not a model of well-crafted legislation that allows for only patients “without hope” to seek to hasten their own deaths while safeguarding vulnerable patients. In fact, DWDA is a law that allows virtually anyone to seek assisted suicide, even if treatment is available to manage or even cure a medical condition or the medical condition is not the reason a person is seeking suicide.
Fabian Stahle compiled the report, “Oregon Health Authority Reveals Hidden Problems with the Oregon Assisted Suicide Model,” when his native Sweden considered using Oregon’s DWDA as a model for assisted suicide legislation.
According to Stahle, “The idea presented to the public in opinion polls is that it [medically assisted suicide] should only apply to people with incurable diseases, those who have nothing to look forward to but an imminent death.” As such, assisted suicide advocates point to the Oregon law as a model. Stahle continues, “They explain to us Swedes that the Oregon law practices are protected by strict safeguards which only allow people with an incurable and irreversible illness that will, within reasonable medical judgment, result in death within six months.”
Instead of taking these claims about DWDA at face value, Stahle wrote to the Oregon Health Authority to clarify exactly how these legal safeguards are interpreted and implemented. He emailed the Oregon Health Authority, and the responses he received should be surprising even to avowed assisted suicide activists.
When Stahle asked if a “terminal disease” can be considered one that will result in death within six months “without the administration of life-sustaining treatment,” Craig New, a research analyst with the Oregon Health Authority, agreed. In other words, according to a representative of the Oregon Health Authority, a terminal illness can be defined as a disease that will kill the patient within six months if the patient stops or refuses further treatment. In other words, this could include even things like a diabetic refusing insulin or a cancer patient refusing a highly effective and readily available treatment option. It is a well-established right in Western society for a patient to refuse treatment. However, most people would not define a patient who refuses effective treatment as a person suffering from a terminal condition.
In responding to further specific questions on this broad and counter-intuitive interpretation of an incurable, terminal illness in the Oregon law, New wrote, “The law is best seen as a permissive law, and states only that patients must have a terminal illness with six months or less to live.” The danger of this “permissive” law is that anyone with a chronic condition could qualify for assisted suicide simply by refusing management of the condition, which may not even be life-limiting in any significant way. As Stahle writes:
A patient’s motivation to refrain from treatment could be anything. One could fear the possibility of side effects or future disabilities. It could be a parallel life crisis that is indirectly or not linked to at all to the disease.
Stahle offers the examples of a cancer patient who stops effective treatment because she is devastated when her partner leaves her, as well as a young diabetic who refuses insulin while suffering despair after a broken relationship.
Stahle’s examples are not far-fetched when one considers that multiple studies have shown people seeking assisted suicide do so not out of fear of death or pain but due to feelings of hopelessness and depression. In other words, patients seeking assisted suicide are often motivated by the same reasons an otherwise healthy person might seek to end his or her life. As Cassy Fiano wrote for Live Action News, “Suicide is suicide, and even people who may be elderly or ill deserve to have their lives protected, too.”
Another consideration is the financial hardship of prolonged medical care. Medical expenses can lead to bankruptcy and a chronic medical condition has far-ranging economic effects. The so-called safeguards in the Oregon law do not address the economic factors that can drive people to suicide, and in fact, the Oregon Health Authority views economic adversity as a reason to pursue assisted suicide. In response to Stahle’s question about treatment not paid for by insurance, New wrote, “I think you could argue that even if the treatment/medication could actually cure the disease, and the patient cannot pay for the treatment, then the disease remains incurable.” A scenario in which an insurance company refuses to pay for a patient’s treatment but offers to cover the cost of assisted suicide is not a far-fetched nightmare. It has already happened.
For obvious reasons, people are uncomfortable with intentionally ending the life of another human being. Abortion and assisted suicide are undeniably just that: intentionally ending a unique human life. To get around this uncomfortable fact, lobbyist for abortion and assisted suicide tend to focus on the extreme examples as a way of normalize state-sanctioned killing and move public opinion.
The motto for abortion used to be, “Safe, legal and rare.” Once abortion activists successfully pushed public opinion to tentatively accept abortion in cases of rape, even though the child killed in such an abortion is innocent and fully human, then all preborn babies have no meaningful protection under the law. This dangerous development is underway in Ireland, where abortion activists are focusing on the rare and tragic cases of rape and other difficult circumstances to push for the legalization of abortion in one of the world’s most pro-life countries.
Likewise, with assisted suicide, pro-life groups have warned that there is a slippery slope. Once assisted suicide is legal for wealthy, autonomous adults suffering from an incurable, fatal conditions, vulnerable patients are at risk for being coerced into assisted suicide or even euthanized against their will. As one doctor observed, the choice to die can soon become a duty to die. Pro-life advocates have warned about a slippery slope in assisted suicide legislation. The recent report on Oregon assisted suicide law shows that in one sense there is no slippery slope: Once any form of murder is accepted in the law, all patients are at risk.