Slippery slope of assisted suicide

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Montanans have a libertarian leaning towards a live-and-let-live philosophy, but what about live-and-let-die?

Physician-assisted suicide continues to be the subject of legislation in Helena, and so far lawmakers have justifiably advanced legislation that would ban the practice and make it clear that “consent of the victim” is not a valid defense for a physician who assists a person with suicide.

One’s initial reaction might be to wonder why the Legislature is putting itself in a position of interfering with the autonomy of a person to choose their own demise with medical assistance. Advocates of physician-assisted suicide, after all, can and do bring heart-wrenching testimonials about people with horrible diseases simply wanting help in ending their lives.

But there are also plenty of reasons why more than 100 legislative proposals nationwide to allow physician-assisted suicide have been rejected, and why 112 Montana doctors support the bill that would ban it. Many of those reasons come from the experience of Oregon and Washington, states that passed ballot initiatives to allow physician-assisted suicide.

In those states, suicides usually aren’t actually “assisted” by physicians; doctors instead provide lethal prescriptions at the request of individuals who are mostly left on their own.

There is the story of an Oregon woman who had cancer and chose suicide 12 years ago, only to be talked out of it by her doctor. Now she is alive and well because she pursued treatment instead, and thankful that she did.

Let’s face it — serious illness is also often accompanied by depression. That means people may not be “in their right mind” when they choose suicide. The pain of chemotherapy or other treatments may make death seem like the preferred alternative, but would those people really give up years of quality life experience with children and grandchildren if they were given hope instead of a deadly drug cocktail?

There is also an abundance of stories about the dangerous influence of money when assisted suicide is an option. The “right to die” can become a “duty to die” when the cost of care comes into play, particularly at a time when health-care costs are soaring. And believe it or not, there have been cases of relatives advising suicide when there are inheritances or life insurance involved. Two words sum it up: “elder abuse.”

In the age of Obamacare, we have to wonder what route government health-care commissars would prefer to see chosen: a few pills or expensive end-of-life care?

Essentially, assisted-suicide laws have the effect of incentivizing suicide. In Oregon, the overall suicide rate has increased 35 percent since assisted suicide was legalized. Another fundamental effect is that the law turns the relationship between doctors and patients upside down. Doctors are trained to heal, not how to help someone die, and that’s why House Bill 505 has the support of so many doctors.

The bill, which passed the House on a 54-45 vote and is now awaiting action in the Senate, would not prevent doctors from providing a full range of end-of-life care, including palliative care, or providing pain medication, that can eventually lead to  death.

Montana has been in limbo in regards to physician-assisted suicide ever since the state Supreme Court came out with a ruling in 2007 that muddied the matter, making consent of the victim a possible defense for doctors while not addressing whether others, such as family members, could be held criminally liable in a suicide case.

There is a need for clarity. Yes, it is a complicated issue, but it seems to us that the state should never condone the taking of innocent life. Therefore, even though we sympathize with the intentions of those who support physician-assisted suicide, we urge the Legislature to err on the side of life, not on the side of death.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Daily Inter Lake’s editorial board.

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