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Assisted Suicide in the Several States

Assisted suicide, or euthanasia, is the merciful hastening of death, often limited to willful and merciful actions to kill someone who is injured or terminally ill. In Vermont, euthanasia has been criminalized by common law. This is also the case in eight other states: Alabama, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina, and West Virginia (see Figure 1). A bill has recently been proposed, H. 484, which would make it a crime to cause or assist anyone in committing suicide. The penalty would be not more than 20 years in prison and not more than a $3000 fine. Additionally, a conviction would be grounds for revoking medical licenses if the violator is a doctor, podiatrist, nurse, dentist, or pharmacist (Vermont Legislature 2001). If passed, Vermont would join the thirty-five other states that have statutes explicitly criminalizing assisted suicide. The only state that permits physician-assisted suicide is Oregon. The remaining states do not have clear laws in either direction. (Euthanasia.com 2001)

The 1997 Oregon Death with Dignity Act

The Death with Dignity Act was passed in Oregon in 1997. It legalizes physician-assisted suicide, but it specifically prohibits euthanasia where a physician or other person directly administers a medication to end another's life.

The Act requires that the patients be 18 years or older, a resident of Oregon, able to make and communicate health care decisions, and they must have been diagnosed with a terminal, incurable and irreversible illness that will lead to death within 6 months.

If a patient meets these requirements, they are eligible to request a prescription for a lethal medication from a licensed Oregon physician. Physicians and health care systems are not required to participate in implementing the Act. There are other conditions that must be met. These include: a consulting physician must confirm the diagnosis and the patient’s ability to make decisions, the patient must be advised of palliative care and pain control as another option, and patients must be requested to notify their next of kin of the request, although they are not required to do so.

In 1998, the first full year of operation, The Oregon Health Division reported that 23 people received prescriptions for lethal medications, 15 of them died after taking them, six died from their underlying illness, and the other two were still alive at the time of the report. (British Medical Association 2001)

Public Opinion

When people were asked if they "favor or oppose physician-assisted suicide," 45% of people were in favor and 46% were opposed (Fox News 1999). However, when the following question, "When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it, or not?" was asked in another poll, 61% were in favor and 35% were opposed (The Gallup Poll 1999).

Arguments For and Against Euthanasia

Some people argue that terminal illnesses cause depression over a long term. They believe that treating this depression, rather than allowing euthanasia, would be a better option. For painful diseases, it has been suggested that the pain should be treated rather than ending life. Others believe that legalization of assisted suicide will lead to a society in which this option is taken too often. Some believe that this might lead to a society that will kill disabled people against their will by claiming that it is in their best interest or by coercing the patient.

On the pro side, people argue that if a person will be in pain for the rest of their life, and her life will not last much longer anyway, that the person should have the option to die whether or not she is capable of taking the action herself. Others argue that a patient should be able to save money so they can pass it on rather than being forced to extend a painful life at a great cost. Some people argue that this is a serious abridgement of personal liberty by taking away the right of self-determination.

References

British Medical Association. 2001. http://web.bma.org.uk/homepage.nsf

Euthanasia.com. 2001. www.euthanasia.com/bystate.html

Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll. Nov. 3-4, 1999. www.pollingreport.com

The Gallup Poll. March 12-14, 1999. www.pollingreport.com

Vermont State Legislature. 2001. www.leg.state.vt.us

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Prepared by Elizabeth Bosshard-Blackey, Michael Scott Duplessis, Erik Weibust on April 25, 2001

 

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Figure 1: Assisted Suicide Laws in the United States

Source: Public Agenda Online (1999). http://www.publicagenda.org/index.htm