March 31, 2017

Physician-assisted suicide bills fail to advance in General Assembly

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

House and Senate proposals to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Indiana failed to advance during the 2017 session of Indiana General Assembly. The Indiana State Medical Association (ISMA) and the Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), among others, opposed the legislation.

Members of the Indiana House and Senate introduced bills which would have allowed a person with a terminal illness to request a lethal dose of medication from their attending physician to end the individual’s life—provided certain criteria was followed.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the ICC, who serves as the public policy spokesperson for the bishops in Indiana, worked with members of the ISMA to urge lawmakers to halt the legislation. He said there is a new threat to human dignity in the form of physician-assisted suicide. Some who fear death or the potential pain of a living with a terminal illness may believe a self-induced, drug overdose at the hand of a physician is the answer.

In September 2016, the ISMA voted to adopt a formal statement expressing its opposition to physician-assisted suicide. ISMA outlined numerous reasons why it opposes legalizing the lethal practice. Medical professionals stated that they should focus their attention on providing care and comfort to patients rather than be a source of lethal drugs. Legalized physician-assisted suicide could create situations of conflict of interest for doctors treating challenging patients and provide a shield for physicians to help kill those patients. Doctors also recognize that persons who are diagnosed with a terminal illness may live many months or even years beyond the initial diagnosis, and sometimes, patients are misdiagnosed.

ISMA officials believe legalized physician-assisted suicide would foster abuse of elderly and disabled persons because it provides abusers with access to lethal drugs. Furthermore, given that there would be little to no oversight or witnesses required once the lethal drugs leave the pharmacy, physicians fear a relative who is an heir to the patient’s estate or an abusive caregiver could acquire the lethal drugs and administer them without the patient’s knowledge or consent.

Physician-assisted suicide runs contrary to the basic medical ethics of doctors. For more than 2,000 years, physicians have professed the Hippocratic oath, of which the first tenant is “primum non nocere” or “first, do no harm.” The oath explicitly forbids physician-assisted suicide.

Other countries that have legalized physician-assisted suicide indicate initial safeguards established to protect vulnerable patients erode. One study of Belgium’s practice of physician-assisted suicide published in the May 2010 issue of Canadian Medical Association Journal showed that more than a third of euthanasia deaths in Belgium were performed without explicit patient request. Of the deaths without a specific patient request, the decision was not discussed with the patient 77 percent of the time.

Tebbe said when people are facing a terminal illness that a caring community needs to devote more attention, not less, to them. Even when a cure is not possible, medicine plays a critical role in providing “palliative care”—alleviating pain and meeting basic needs, including emotional and spiritual needs at the end of one’s life.

“I am grateful that the physician-assisted suicide proposals failed to get a hearing this year,” said Tebbe. “We need to stand up for the inherent dignity and respect due each person, especially the most vulnerable.”

“To Live Each Day with Dignity: A Statement on Physician-Assisted Suicide,” a statement issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says, “Catholic teaching views suicide as a grave offense against love of self, one that also breaks the bonds of love and solidarity with family, friends, and God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2281). To assist another’s suicide is to take part in ‘an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested’ ” (St. John Paul II, “Evangelium Vitae,” #66).

Catholic teaching is not the only faith tradition that opposes physician-assisted suicide. Many other Christian denominations as well as Muslims, Jews, Hindus and adherents of other faiths also oppose it.

Indiana Alliance Against Assisted Suicide, an advocacy organization working to prevent legalizing physician‑assisted suicide in Indiana, asserts that if it made legal, based on what has occurred in other states with legalized physician-assisted suicide, it quickly would become another form of treatment.

In Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide has been legal for a decade, two cancer patients were denied insurance coverage for potentially life-saving treatment, but were granted coverage for the much cheaper option of physician‑assisted suicide.

Physician-assisted death is also legal in Washington, Vermont, California, Montana, Colorado and Washington, D.C.

Tebbe, who serves as a member of the Indiana Alliance Against Assisted Suicide, said while the Indiana General Assembly did not move the bill this year, he expects the bill or others like it to surface again next year.

“By raising awareness of the benefits of palliative care and the ill effects of physician-assisted suicide,” he said, “we hope to better equip people to support vulnerable persons through palliative care.”
 

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion. The ICC provides legislative updates and other public policy resources on its Webpage at www.indianacc.org.)

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