This year, 19 states are considering legislation that would legalize assisted suicide, allowing doctors to end the lives of patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses.
Several states across the nation have already legalized assisted suicide, with Oregon, Washington state, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, New Jersey, Vermont, Hawaii and Washington, D.C., all having passed such legislation. This year, bills have been proposed which would expand access to the procedure in 19 other states, indicating that the debate regarding a doctor’s role in helping a patient end their life is growing.
Oregon was the first state to legalize assisted suicide in 1997, and Vermont, Washington state, Montana and California followed in the years after. Most recently, New Mexico adopted the measure in 2021, allowing patients with six months to live or less to undergo a mental competency screening process, followed by a 48-hour waiting period, before being allowed to take their own life, according to KQRE News, a local media outlet.
In Virginia, officials with the state Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee passed a bill on Tuesday, allowing patients with a terminal illness to request that a doctor provide a “self-administered controlled substance” to end their life. The bill will go before the state Senate at large in the coming days, according to WUSA9, a local media outlet.
Proponents of the bill argue that individuals should have the right to choose many things in their lives, including when they die. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-VA), who suffers from progressive supranuclear palsy, argued in favor of the bill, writing a letter to the state Senate in January.
“There are 1000s of Virginia’s dealing with terminal illnesses facing unthinkable challenges and choices because of these devastating health conditions,” Wexton wrote. “That is why this legislation is so critical. It is a vital step allowing Virginians to gain the dignity, freedom and peace of mind we deserve in the face of a tragic terminal illness like mine.”
However, the bill isn’t without opponents. Last week, Bishops Michael Burbidge and Barry Knestout of the Diocese in Richmond, Virginia, released a statement saying that the Catholic church was “alarmed and deeply saddened” and encouraged the congregation to contact their elected officials to raise concerns about the bill.
“People facing the end of life are in great need and must be accompanied with great care and attentiveness. To address each of their needs and alleviate their suffering, patients deserve high quality medical, palliative, and hospice care – not suicide drugs,” the statement reads.
In Arizona, the proposed bill would allow a patient to write a “living will” that would give a doctor permission to withhold “food and liquids” from the patient. The bill would also give a physician immunity from “criminal or civil liability” when making “good faith health care decisions based on the provisions of an apparently genuine living will,” which detractors argue may allow a doctor to starve a patient even if the patient is asking for food.
In the years since the procedure was first legalized, 5,330 people have died in the U.S. due to assisted suicide, and 8,451 Americans have received a prescription for the medication that would allow them to take their own lives, according to a 2022 study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) program has been in the spotlight in recent years as people debate the ethics of such policies. The nation dramatically expanded access to assisted suicide and allowed people with mental illnesses to legally commit suicide. However, that has been indefinitely halted, after few psychiatrists were willing to prescribe the medication under those terms, according to the National Catholic Register.
The MAID program was first approved nationwide in 2016, but was only allowed for a person whose death was “reasonably foreseeable” while suffering from a “grievous and irremediable medical condition.” It was later amended to include mental illnesses, including depression.
Since its passing, Canada’s MAID program has ended the lives of 44,958 people. In 2022, the program led to the deaths of 13,241 people, accounting for 4.1% of all deaths in the nation.
The impact of medically assisted suicide on other nations has also raised questions on it’s ethical standing. On Jan. 27, a 28-year-old Dutch woman used her country’s assisted suicide program to end her own life after struggling with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for several years, as well as autism, anxiety and ADHD. She announced her own passing on X, prompting debates surrounding the topic across social media.
There are concerns that the U.S. might be heading in a similar direction. Daryl Pullman, a research professor of bioethics at Memorial University, wrote a 2023 article for the American Journal of Bioethics, referencing Grant Gillett, also a professor of Biomedical Ethics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, who said that when people want a “quick and tidy solution” for a complex problem like depression or terminal illness, “Euthanasia is just such an answer.”
“The analysis offered here demonstrates that not every proposed approach to managing this complex human problem will necessarily result in the abandonment of moral judgment, but moral judgment must both inform and be constrained by the law. Canada has much to learn from the US in this regard. Conversely, the US should keep a wary eye on Canada so as to avoid the precipitous slide now happening there,” Pullman concluded.
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