(image by Mohamed Malik)
Today, Colorado will be voting on Proposition 106, a ballot initiative that will determine whether or not doctors can legally prescribe life ending medication to terminally ill patients. Possibly the most controversial proposition on the state’s ballot, Prop 106 would make Colorado the 5th state to legalize medically assisted suicide if approved.
Medically assisted suicide is criminalized throughout the 45 remaining states, earning at least an automatic manslaughter charge for any physician caught of performing a procedure. Even Oregon, the first state to legalize assisted suicide in 1994, went back and attempted to repeal laws that permitted doctors to administer a lethal dosage of medication, using the Controlled Substances Act as justification. In 2006 the Supreme Court later rejected Oregon’s use of the Act in Gonzales v. State of Oregon, reinstating medically assisted suicide throughout the state. A similar hesitation occurred in almost all other states that it was legalized.
Although the number of states permitting assisted suicide is very low, legalization has been gaining noticeable momentum. Washington, being the second state to legalize, did so in 2008, followed by Montana, Vermont and California in the span of only six years. Colorado has quite a good chance of joining them, barely a year after the previous state to legalize.
Prop. 106 is heavily based on Oregon’s Dealt with Dignity Act. If passed, only terminally ill, adult individuals with less than sixth months left to live may seek a lethal prescription. At least two medical doctors must confirm that the person’s illness will result in death in less than six months and the patient must provide two or more witnesses whom can confirm that the patient has not compromised his or her ability to give consent. The law in Oregon, as it would be in Colorado, seeks to minimize any chance of killing a person who did not fully intend to die by placing special requirements that make doctors responsible for informing the patient of every possible treatment and method of pain management. Additionally, the plan requires the patient to take the medication themselves so that, in the case of cold feet, the patient can opt out whenever they wish.
Much of the hesitation of adopting these laws stems from the moral ambiguity of medically assisted suicide, with many claiming that it is nothing more than downright murder. Such claims miss the point: assisted suicide laws are not about killing, and they are not made to give doctors the ability to euthanize anyone they want. They are about minimizing as much pain as possible. If an individual is dying and has said all their goodbyes, what is the point of keeping him or her alive for an excruciatingly few months? Doctors are simply not going to find a cure within that time, and odds are, if a cure was found, the patients would probably be too far gone to save. No one wants to die, but these laws will not kill anyone who has not accepted their fate. If someone second guesses the decision, there would be plenty of opportunities for the patient to back out; it’s not a quick process, and the person would have to seriously commit to terminating their lives before being given the medication.
Many opponents of these laws focus on how they believe that doctors would have to compromise their own personal beliefs if assisted suicide was legalized. No doctor is forced to do any procedure which he or she does not agree to do. If a case arises in which the doctor has a moral scruple against the method or experiences some other conflict of interest, that doctor has full right to pass on that patient to another doctor, one whom would be willing to do the procedure. Not only is this a given fact throughout the medical field, Prop 106 specifically entails that the any medical physician that does not want to be involved with the procedure, has the right to back out. Likewise, a morally opposed doctor is encouraged to find alternate treatments and try to get the patient to change their mind. Despite the concerns, there is no issue on the doctor’s side of the procedure in which someone would be forced to compromise his or her on morality.
The true moral issue here is why we, as a society, should be allowed to force a suffering person to endure more pain than is necessary. If a patient if truly terminal with a conscious decision to die, what would be the difference between ending that person’s life now versus waiting until the patient’s body shuts down on its own? A person willing to go through the procedure has most likely said their goodbyes and accepted any unresolved points in life. The quality of life of an actively dying person is far below that of a healthy individual without even mentioning the heavy medical bills of continued treatment to make the pain bearable. By legalizing medically assisted suicide, Colorado would be simply offering a way out for patients whom do not want spend their last moment of life in-and-out of the hospital straining for every breath. Prop. 106 offers a peaceful end without agony. By denying this, Colorado would be denying the alleviation of an immense burden and final moments of peace for anyone suffering from a terminal illness.
Charles Truxillo is a 1st year MPP student at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.