Election Guide: Assisted Suicide Initiative

Anyone who says you can’t legislate morality has never taken a stand on either side of Initiative 1000. The question, since both sides claim to occupy the moral high ground with respect to this controversial issue, is which you believe actually does.

I-1000 involves nothing less than life and death. Calling itself the “Death with Dignity” Initiative, the measure is modeled after a similar ballot initiative narrowly passed by Oregon voters in 1994 that allows doctors under certain conditions to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients.

“The so-called Death With Dignity Act – the only law of its kind in the United States – is a good example of bad law,” according to an analysis of initiative by the Washington State Catholic Conference, which opposes it.

“Only a few hundred deaths by assisted suicide have been reported,” the organization reports on its Web site (http://www.columbiariver.org/news-folder/assisted-suicide-initiative-2013-a-dangerous-proposal), “but the number of assisted deaths could be much higher, as there are no sanctions for not reporting. Doctors prescribing a lethal dose of medication may not even have known the patient.”

What’s more, “Patients who may be depressed can take their lives in Oregon without their family being notified until it is too late,” the WSCC Web site adds, “and the number of patients referred for mental health evaluation has been negligible. Records are retained for only one year and provide few details because there is no oversight, nor mandatory reporting of abuses. There are also inadequate safeguards against abuse.”

Not so, argues the Yes on I-100 Website (http://www.itsmydecision.org/)

Among the safeguards built into the Washington state ballot measure:

• the patient must be at least 18 years old;

• the patient must be a resident of the state of Washington;

• the patient must be terminally ill — not disabled, but diagnosed as terminally ill;

• the terminally ill patient must have six months or less to live, as verified by two physicians;

• three requests for Death with Dignity must be made (two verbal and one written);

• two physicians must verify the mental competence of the terminally ill patient;

• the request must be made voluntarily, without coercion, as verified by two physicians;

• the terminally ill patient must be informed of all other options, including palliative care, pain management and hospice care;

• there is a 15-day waiting period between the first oral request and the written request;

• there is a 48-hour waiting period between the written request and the writing of the prescription;

• the terminally ill patient’s written request must be independently witnessed, by two people, at least one of whom is not related to the patient or employed by the healthcare facility;

• the terminally ill patient is encouraged to discuss their decision with family (not required because of confidentiality laws);

• only the terminally ill patient may self-administer the medication; and,

• the patient may change their mind at any time.

Opponents of the initiative disagree. The No on Assisted Suicide Web site (http://www.noassistedsuicide.com) argues that Initiative 1000:

• Endangers those struggling with the high cost of healthcare. Under I-1000 an ill and vulnerable person could be pressured to “choose ” a fatal drug overdose rather than be given the healthcare and support they need.

• Allows doctors to give lethal drugs to mentally ill or depressed patients. Many people feel sad, lonely, or afraid when they are seriously ill. Under I-1000 any such “cry for help” by a fearful or depressed person could easily be mistaken for a request for assisted suicide.

• Does not require that spouses and family be told before a doctor gives a loved one a lethal overdose. Under I-1000, a spouse or family member need not be consulted before the patient is given lethal drugs. Afterward, the family might never be told the truth of how their loved one died.

• Has no safeguards for the patient after the prescription is written. No one needs to witness the death, only the initial request. There are no provisions to ensure that the patient is competent when the overdose is taken, that the patient is not pressured into taking the drugs, or that the fatal dose was not given to the patient against his or her will.

• Allows other people to give the patient the lethal overdose. Initiative 1000 does not specify that only the patient may administer the lethal overdose to himself or herself.

• Allows beneficiaries to witness death requests. Estate law generally frowns on heirs witnessing wills, but I-1000 allows beneficiaries to sign as a witness to the request for lethal drugs.

• Requires a doctor to falsify death certificates. I-1000 requires doctors to lie on the death certificate, so the fatal overdose is not listed. Instead, doctors are directed to fill out the death certificate as if the patient died of natural causes.

• Has secretive and inadequate reporting so any abuses will never be known. The assisted-suicide initiative requires that information on assisted suicide be collected. However, there are no penalties for incomplete or inaccurate reports. And there are no penalties for failing to report.

• Protects even bad or incompetent doctors from lawsuits. The doctors who prescribe drug overdoses would be given protection from lawsuits or disciplinary action by medical authorities.

• Is not supported by those who work most closely with the dying. The Washington State Medical Association (the state affiliate of the AMA) and many other healthcare groups oppose I-1000.

• Is opposed by disability advocacy organizations.

• Is opposed by prominent persons of both parties.

• Is only a first step in a slide toward euthanasia. I-1000 is a dangerous beginning toward the kind of assisted suicide abuse and euthanasia that are practiced in the Netherlands. Holland has gone, in just a couple of decades, from assisted suicide to allowing the killing of ill children and adults — sometimes without their knowledge or consent.

Even the spokesman for I-1000, Gov. Booth Gardner, has described the initiative as a “first step.” If he can sway Washington to embrace this law, then other states will follow, according to the New York Times.

“And gradually,” Gardner says, “the culture will shift and laws with more latitude will be passed.”

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