Lest we ever be tempted to believe that the Vermont Senate’s defeat of the bill that would have legalized assisted suicide has put the issue to rest, on June 10 the Rutland Herald published a pro-assisted-suicide commentary by a David Carkeet of Middlesex, “How to Debate How We Die” (http://www.rutlandherald.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20120610/FEATURES15/706109905/0/SEARCH). Unfortunately one has to pay to read this article.
The article begins by lamenting the fact that laws in Vermont are passed by the legislature rather than through popular votes. No legislature in the US has ever passed an assisted suicide law. The only two states that permit assisted suicide legalized it by easily-manipulated popular votes. True Dignity is thankful for Vermont’s legislative tradition. We think legislators, whose job it is to take and weigh testimony and become deeply informed about issues, are better able to make informed decisions than citizens exposed to push polls and tv ads. The people retain ultimate power though their right to vote for and against the legislators.
Carkeet admits that last spring’s Senate debate was not only about whether assisted suicide language was germane to a bill regulating tanning salons but also about the substance of the proposed legalization legislation. He accuses the Senators who opposed the bill of asking a series of “what if” questions that he says have all been answered by the state of Oregon’s experience with assisted suicide, which he claims has been free of problems and abuses.
We won’t bore you by once more listing the many indications that there have been abuses and problems in Oregon. We urge you to read Vermont Alliance for Ethical Health Care’s resource piece, “Abuses in Oregon”, which must be downloaded to Word but is free and can be found at http://www.vaeh.org/resources/. We also urge you to read “Legal physician-assisted suicide in Oregon and The Netherlands: evidence concerning the impact on patients in vulnerable groups—another perspective on Oregon’s data”, a scholarly article published in 2011 in the Journal of Medical Ethics; an abstract is available at http://jme.bmj.com/content/37/3/171.short, and True Dignity will be glad to lend our copy of the full document to anyone who requests it.
In his blanket denial that there have been problems in Oregon, Carkeet flies against common sense; nothing ever happens without any problems. We find unconvincing he failure of Oregon’s reporting system to show the same kinds of problems that have been documented in other places, such as the Netherlands, where, according to a 2002 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 18% of physician-assisted suicides became euthanasias because of “problems with completion” (http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM200002243420805), ; the difference between Oregon and the Netherlands, it is easy to infer, is that euthanasia is legal and therefore reported in the Netherlands, illegal and therefore not reported in Oregon.
Of course euthanasia, despite US proponents’ eagerness to deny that it could or should happen in the US, is not the most sinister possible outcome of legalizing assisted suicide. After all, there are those who think euthanasia is merciful.
American’s and Vermont’s abuse statistics show that not all people are motivated by mercy. The most salient fact about legal assisted suicide, in our view, is that it provides the perfect alibi for malicious abuses. No caregiver or heir who commits murder using a drug intended for suicide and acquired “just in case” it might be needed to prevent suffering at some time within the next six months is ever going to be investigated or charged with anything.
Oregon’s experience does tell us that some who acquire the drugs don’t use them. We will simply never know how many who also changed their minds about committing suicide died under pressure or were put down without their consent.
“What if legal assisted suicide leads to elder abuse?” The very nature of legal assisted suicide, as it is currently practiced in Oregon, and as it would be practiced in Vermont if any of the laws that have been proposed over the years had been passed, negates the possibility of arriving at satisfactory answers to this question and the other “what if” questions Carkeet would like to exclude from the debate. That Vermont legislators have done their information-gathering job thoroughly enough to realize this is reason to respect their consistently negative judgment in this matter.
True Dignity wishes the perennial, divisive battle over assisted suicide did not have to be refought here again and again and again, but it seems the proponents are gearing up for just that to happen. We wish, instead, that they would join us at the point where we find common ground. Vermont needs improvement in end of life care. If we didn’t have to spend so much time fighting, maybe we could work together to make that improvement a reality.