Is There a Trend in “Aid-in-Dying”?
During the 1990s, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a medical pathologist, helped dozens of terminally ill people end their lives. He was the central figure in a national drama surrounding assisted suicide, and served eight years in prison as a result of a nationally televised event in which he injected a patient suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease with lethal drugs.
The general approach of the courts in the past has been to treat assisting a person with his suicide as a the crime of murder. Starting with Oregon in 1997, there are now five states where “physician-assisted suicide” is allowed. There seems to be a trend in favor of changing the law to allow grievously ill patients to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications that are expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose.
The New York Times ran an article by Erik Eckholm on February 7, 2014 suggesting that more states may be considering the issue. Eckholm notes that advocates are promoting “death with dignity” bills in a number of states. Washington voters approved a law similar to Oregon’s in 2008, but Massachusetts voters narrowly defeated such a measure in 2012. In May 2012, Vermont Legislature approved one. New York does not directly approve assisted suicide, but instead has made it a defense to a criminal charge of murder that the accused had assisted a competent adult to take his own life.
Apparently, it makes a difference how the issue is framed when polling the public for opinions on the subject. The New York Times article cites a May 2013 Gallup poll in which “70 percent of respondents agreed that when patients and their families wanted it, doctors should be allowed to ‘end the patient’s life by some painless means’ ….[but] only 51 percent supported allowing doctors to help a dying patient ‘commit suicide.’”
The Gallup poll offers this conclusion: Americans generally favor allowing doctors to assist terminally ill patients in ending their lives, but the degree of support ranges from 51% to 70%, depending on how the process is described. A wording that refers to the patient’s intention to end his or her life as “suicide,” doesn’t say family members are involved in the decision, and doesn’t specify that the procedure will involve “painless means” produces lower support than the alternative wording.
The resulting difference offers important insights into the complex nature of Americans’ views on this question, as well as the negative connotation suicide has, generally. Underscoring this, the same poll finds just 16% of Americans saying suicide is morally acceptable. At the same time, the public is evenly split over whether “doctor-assisted suicide” is morally acceptable: 45% say it is, and 49% say it is not.
The Times article also tells the story of a person with a prognosis of six months to live, who lives in one of the states that does not recognize aid in dying. The author of the article quotes several leaders in the field, including Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, who says “it makes a tremendous difference … to live where the law permits assisted dying. Too often people seek alternatives in shame and secrecy, sometimes making frantic international trips for lethal drugs or using more violent means to kill themselves.” She references some research from Oregon about the peace of mind patients may feel by just having the option, with a number who die without taking the prescription.
Thanks to Rebecca C. Morgan