Mr. Lanting, a member of South Holland Protestant Reformed Church, is a practicing attorney.
Those of us who wrote Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act are . . . terminally ill people who believe it is our right—not the government’s—to decide when and how our lives should end.
Oregon Right to Die (1994)
The Oregon Death with Dignity Act, a ballot initiative ostensibly enhancing the freedom of dying patients, is in fact a frightful license for physicians to prescribe death, free from outside scrutiny and immune from possible prosecution—all in the name of a humane and dignifies death. Relief of suffering becomes the elimination of the sufferer.
-Dr. Leon Kass, The Hastings Center (1994)
Apparently oblivious to Dylan Thomas’ poetic plea (“Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light”), Oregon voters recently legalized suicide for adults suffering from a terminal illness. The election-day ballot initiative passed by a slim margin (52% to 48%), and the nation’s first physician-assisted suicide law was to take effect on December 8, 1994.
The so-called Death with Dignity Law allows physicians to prescribe and furnish lethal drugs to a patient who wishes to die a “humane and dignified” death. Although the physician is not authorized actually to administer the lethal dosage, he may be present at the time the suicide act is committed.
Under the new law, the legal suicide process begins when the patient makes at least two oral and one written request to end his life. The attending physician must then determine whether the patient has a “terminal disease,” which is defined as an “incurable and irreversible disease which will produce death within six months.”
A second physician must then confirm the diagnosis and also determine that the patient is acting “voluntarily” and not suffering from a “psychological disorder or depression causing impaired judgment.” Additional “safeguards” in the law require a fifteen-day waiting period after the patient makes his required two oral and one written request (see box, next page) for the lethal drug, allowing the physician to “offer the patient an opportunity to rescind his request.” Notification of family or spouse is not required, so that a patient could ingest the lethal dosage and die without his spouse’s or family’s knowledge or consent.
The Oregon law declares that physicians who prescribe and furnish the lethal drugs in good faith compliance with the act are “immune” from civil and criminal liability. The law also declares that any benefits under a life, health, or accident insurance policy shall not be affected by such a suicide.
The Right to Choose
The Oregon initiative is the culmination of years of lobbying efforts by the Hemlock Society and other so-called right-to-die groups who contend that each individual ought to have the right to choose how and when to end his life. The Oregon “victory” gives the suicide-rights movement new impetus. Euthanasia initiatives are now under consideration in Connecticut and New Hampshire. Similar euthanasia laws were defeated in California in 1992 and in Washington state in 1991.
Euthanasia zealots are led by Derek Humphry, the author of Final Exit, a how-to manual describing alternative methods for committing suicide. Another proponent, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a retired Michigan pathologist who has earned the grisly title “Dr. Death” for his assistance in some 21 deaths, is presently leading a ballot drive for a state constitutional amendment to secure a “right-to-die” in Michigan.
Many observers of the suicide rights crusade are noting its close relationship to the abortion rights movement. In fact, when asked during a recent interview why the euthanasia movement has gained such momentum in recent years, Derek Humphry replied that the turning point was the Supreme Court case of Roe v. Wade, a decision which invented a new right “to choose one’s own destiny.” And now that Oregon has blazed the trail, several other states will undoubtedly adopt similar legislation in the near future.
Death as a Therapeutic Option
Although suicide proponents were elated over the Oregon triumph, many physicians and medical ethicists are distressed and troubled by the Oregon law which arguably transforms doctors into agents of death. Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former United States Surgeon General, vehemently and publicly opposed the Oregon legislation. He argued that the law would create an environment where suicide would become the first line of defense against terminal disease. Dr. Koop also maintained that the Oregon measure is ripe for abuse because of inadequate safeguards and reporting requirements. Moreover, because of recent concerns about health care cost containment, the poor, elderly, frail and disabled persons will, in his opinion, inevitably become unwilling victims.
Dr. Leon Kass, a physician and medical ethicist at the University of Chicago, published an article in a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal entitled “Death by Ballot in Oregon” stating:
And physician-assisted suicide, once legal, will not stay confined to those who freely elect it—and its boosters do not really want it thus. Why? Because most people who “merit” a humane and dignified death”—persons with senility, mental illness, or Alzheimer’s disease; deformed infants; and retarded or dying children—are incapable of requesting death for themselves. But lawyers, encouraged by the cost-containers, will sue to rectify this inequity. Why, they will argue, should the comatose or demented be denied the right to assisted suicide? Court-appointed proxy consenters will quickly erase the distinction between the right to choose one’s own death and the right to request someone else’s.
The Dutch Experience
Many critics of the Oregon law also allude to the current state of affairs in the Netherlands, where assisted suicide is technically illegal though nonetheless widely practiced by Dutch physicians in accordance with certain “guidelines.” A recent official Dutch government study of the practice of euthanasia in that country provided some distressing statistics. The study showed that more than 40% of Dutch physicians have performed involuntary euthanasia—i.e., administration of lethal drugs to patients without their knowledge and consent. This occurs even though that country’s euthanasia guidelines are more stringent than the Oregon law and require that the choice of death must be informed and voluntary. The report also alarmingly indicated that there are about 1,000 cases per year of such involuntary euthanasia, half of which are performed without family consultation.
It appears that the new Oregon law has commenced a new era in this country where physicians are now licensed to kill those who wish to “exit” this world with a “humane and dignified” death, and if the Dutch experience is any indicator, the only question that now remains is whether the elderly, the senile, the mentally ill, and retarded or dying children are next, victims to involuntary euthanasia, when, in the physician’s judgment, induced death would be more “humane and dignified.”
Lost in all of this debate in the national press is the additional horror that our nation (or at least a majority of citizens) is now insensible to the notion of the sanctity of life and the biblical truth that the Holy Spirit alone is the author, giver, and taker of life. Reformed Christian families will continue to agonize over sometimes difficult medical decisions encountered when a loved one is suffering from a painful terminal illness, but we would hope that pain medications coupled with loving consolation is the virtuous way to face that last enemy, death. To submit obediently to God’s providence and will, even in the face of pain and suffering is, after all, the only way to die with true Christian dignity.