April 21, 2024

Assisted suicide passes in Washington

Second US state to pass controversial law

The cause of assisted suicide made a significant breakthrough this week when
voters in the northwest state of Washington approved Initiative 1000. This
measure authorises doctors to prescribe lethal medications for the terminally
ill. The measure is patterned on the "Death with Dignity" law in neighbouring
Oregon. The margin was convincing – about 58% of voters supported it and only
42% opposed it.

A similar proposal failed in 1991, but subtle changes in the proposal,
massive spending and high-profile supporters seem to have made the difference.
The leader of the campaign was a former governor, Booth Gardner. He has
Parkinson’s disease and says that I-1000 provides a compassionate way for people
to die.

The difference between the successful measure and the 1991 version is that it
does not allow doctors to administer lethal drugs on behalf of patients who
can’t do so themselves. Any patient requesting the fatal medication must be at
least 18, declared competent and a resident of Washington state.

The patient would have to make two oral requests, 15 days apart, and submit a
written request witnessed by two people, including one person who is not a
relative, heir, attending doctor, or connected with a health facility where the
requester lives. Two doctors also would have to certify that the patient has a
terminal condition and six months or less to live.

Bioethicist and anti-euthanasia activist Wesley
J. Smith says
that euthanasia now has the wind in its sails. "There are many
reasons for the loss having to do with the overwhelming financial backing from
all around the world in favor of assisted suicide, to a popular former governor
as spokesperson, an in-the-tank media that were full cheerleaders for the pro
side, to a local campaign in opposition that was, to put it politely, very
disappointing in its vision, imagination, and execution."

He believes that the euthanasia "juggernaut" will use clever marketing to
press for legislative change in other states. "Anyone who still says ‘it can’t
happen here,’ isn’t paying attention." Progressive bioethicist Arthur
agrees: "I suspect it will become a political hot potato in a number
of states in the next few years. An aging population, the increasing cost of
medical care and a lack of high-quality palliative and nursing-home care almost
guarantee it."

As the popular economics blog Freakonomics
points out, a good business case can be made for euthanasia. It cites a 1998
paper in the New
England Journal of Medicine
which estimated that legal euthanasia for
terminally ill patients could cut American health-care costs by US$627 million
per year (in 1995 dollars).