NASHVILLE, TN – In November, Colorado voters will consider whether to legalize “assisted death” for people with a terminal illness who receive a prognosis of death within six months. Additionally, 9 other states are considering legalizing physician assisted suicide.
What is physician-assisted suicide?
Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) (also known as physician-assisted death, or PAD) occurs when a physician facilitates a patient’s death by providing the necessary means and/or information to enable the patient to perform the life-ending act (e.g,. the physician provides sleeping pills and information about the lethal dose, while aware that the patient may commit suicide). The distinction between PAS and euthanasia is that in the latter, the lethal dose is administered by someone other than the patient. So if a physician directly administered a lethal drug it would be euthanasia, either voluntary or nonvoluntary (i.e., against the will of the patient).
In which states is physician-assisted suicide currently legal?
Five states—California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Vermont—have legalized physician-assisted suicide in some form. PAS remains illegal by statute in Montana, but a 2009 Montana Supreme Court decision shields doctors from prosecution so long as they have the patient's request in writing. New Mexico's statutes continue to list assisted suicide as a fourth-degree felony, but the courts briefly made the practice legal in 2014 before the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled against it.
Currently, one in six Americans lives in a state where a doctor can prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to a patient. What states are considering legalizing physician-assisted suicide? There are ten states in which the legalization of physician-assisted suicide is being considered:
Alaska — A bill is currently pending in the state legislature.
Arizona — A bill is pending, though currently stalled, in the state legislature.
Colorado — A physician-assisted dying measure, Proposition 106, is on the ballot this election.
Michigan — A bill is currently pending in the state legislature.
Nebraska — A bill is currently pending in the state legislature.
New Jersey — A bill is currently pending in the state legislature.
New York — A bill is currently pending in the state legislature.
Rhode Island — A bill is currently pending in the state legislature.
Tennessee — A bill is currently pending in the state legislature.
Utah — A bill is currently pending in the state legislature.
What is the federal government’s position on physician-assisted suicide?
In the case of Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), the Supreme Court ruled that the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment does not guarantee an individual the right to PAS. The Court ruled that since the individual states can have a legitimate interest in prohibiting PAS. The ruling made it clear that legalizing or criminalizing PAS is a matter of states' rights.
Is there a demand for physician-assisted suicide?
Many Americans think it should be a option: According to a Gallup survey taken in 2015, nearly seven in ten Americans (68 percent) say doctors should be legally allowed to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide. Support for PAS has risen nearly 20 points since 2013 and stands at the highest level in more than a decade.
But even in states where it is legal, there is not much demand for PAS. In 2015, 132 people died by PAS. Similarly, in Washington in 2015 there were 166 deaths due to PAS. Only 24 PAS-related deaths were recorded by Vermont from 2013 to 2016. (If PAS was legal in all 50 states and accounted for 0.25 percent of deaths in 2014 (2,596,993), there would have been 6,492 physician assisted suicides.)
Why do people seek physician-assisted suicide?
A report by the National Institute of Health notes that in published studies, pain is not a dominant motivating factor in patients seeking PAS. The reasons for seeking to die are usually depression, hopelessness, issues of dependency, and loss of control or autonomy.
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