Delawareans: Oppose HB 160 legalizing Physician Assisted Suicide

I sent this to my legislators. Feel free to share:

I strongly oppose the passage of HB 160, the “Death with Dignity” act, which allows terminally ill patients to request physician assistance in ending their lives.

I work for an agency which is heavily focused on suicide prevention and life promotion, particularly among those with mental health disorders.  I feel that supporting this legislation would be counter to my personal values and the mission of my work, and would send a harmful message to those who are already struggling with mental illness and may be contemplating suicide.

In working on suicide prevention, we want everyone to understand that their life has value.  We say that we are being compassionate by extending the right to die to those suffering from terminal illness, but isn’t everyone who is thinking about suicide experiencing great pain and suffering? Isn’t everyone who is considering ending their life moving towards their inevitable demise anyway, as we all are? Isn’t saying that people who are dying faster or sooner have more of a right to kill themselves, implying that their lives are not as much worth living as those who are young and healthy, in other words that they are not as valuable? Isn’t it sending the message that if we are suffering (as most anyone with thoughts of suicide is), life is not worth living?

A 2015 study was published by British scholars David Jones and David Paton demonstrating that states where assisted suicide is legal have seen a rise in overall suicide rates — assisted and unassisted — in those states. The study show that, after controlling for demographic and socioeconomic factors and other state-specific issues, physician-assisted suicide is associated with a 6.3 percent increase in total suicide rates. For individuals older than 65, the effect was even greater, at 14.5 percent.

The legislation uses the term “die with dignity” over and over again. This phrase represents a true shift in values, suggesting that allowing others to care for you at the end of your life is less dignified than taking your own life, which places undue pressure on those who cannot care for themselves to choose death. Many disabilities advocate groups oppose physician assisted suicide because persons living with disabilities or chronic disease are already all too familiar with the implicit and explicit pressures that they face every day.

Most of us hate to see people in pain, and so it is completely understandable why this legislation may be popular. But being compassionate does not mean that we have to sanction suicide. It means caring for people enough to consider their lives precious regardless of illness, age, life expectancy, class, creed or culture.

It is a myth to assume that ending your life early affects only the individual. None of us live in a vacuum. Every action that we make influences others around us, at the very minimum by sending an implicit message. What message are we sending about the value of life for the aged and/or sick when we give them special permission to die?

In all 50 states it is legal for anyone dying in discomfort to receive palliative sedation, wherein the patient is sedated to the point at which the discomfort is relieved while the dying process takes place peacefully. It is also legal to refuse medical care to extend life in many cases. This means that there are legal solutions that already exist and do not raise the very serious risks that this legislation would raise.

Thousands of people make the choice to die by suicide every year. We already have the power to take our own lives if we truly want to. While this type of legislation claims to give more power to the individual, it actually creates a mechanism for the government and medical establishment to enter into decisions as to who lives and who dies, and this is dangerous.

Assisted suicide is the cheapest treatment for a terminal illness. This means that in places where assisted suicide is legal, patients can be steered towards that option simply by being denied the more expensive life-extending treatment that they may desire. There are already multiple examples of insurance companies offering people assisted suicide in lieu of chemotherapy, right here in the United States.

Additionally, while safeguards have been written into the bill to protect those with psychiatric illness (where suicidal thoughts are often a symptom of the illness), these do not actually offer protection, as can be demonstrated by multiple cases. Those who have a history of depression and suicide attempts have already received lethal drugs in the US (for example, Michael Freeland).

In places where physician assisted suicide has been adopted for some time, such as the Netherlands, increasingly permissive laws have cropped up. Currently, patients in the Netherlands may receive physician assisted suicide as children, for psychological distress without physical illness, and for chronic but not terminal illnesses. Dr. Herbert Hendin, who conducted research there, writes in the Psychiatric Times that there have been thousands of cases of involuntary euthanasia (called “termination of the patient without explicit request”).

Thoughts of suicide are sometimes a part of dying, but can be overcome. Like healthy people who become depressed, terminally ill individuals can recover emotionally with the support of antidepressant medications, a good psychologist, a caring spiritual counselor and/or the care of their loved ones. They often find meaning, even in the face of dying, using their final days to reconcile old hurts, tell others how much they mean to them, pass on wisdom that they have acquired in their lives, and appreciate the kindness and compassion of those who care for them.

As a person whose life’s work involves supporting those in psychological distress in the journey toward recovery and psychological wellness, I must oppose legislation that may pressure them towards a decision of despair.

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