Preventing “Assisted Death” Helping Deal With People’s Suffering

Opinion   William Saunders and Veronika Johannsen   Mar 11, 2013   |   10:14AM    Washington, DC

For many people, their biggest fear in life is suffering. Often times this fear of suffering from accident or illness can become too much for an individual to bear.

No one likes to think about their own mortality, but as pro-lifers, this is a conversation we must have, particularly when debating laws that would permit the desires of another person to determine the life or death of those most vulnerable among us. On March 31st, the nation will remember the 8th anniversary of the death of Terri Schindler Schiavo, whose death sparked a flame of media attention and brought the topic of “Right to Die” to the forefront of American politics, even circulating to the desk of then-President George W. Bush.

Schiavo was diagnosed by doctors as living in a persistent vegetative state following a mysterious cardio-respiratory arrest on February 25, 1990 that caused hypoxic encephalopathy – a neurological injury caused by lack of oxygen to the brain. Initially placed on a ventilator to assist her breathing, Schiavo was soon able to breathe on her own and maintain vital function. A Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy (PEG) tube was provided to ensure the Schiavo was receiving adequate nutrition and hydration.

In 1998, Schiavo’s husband Michael Schiavo petitioned the Sixth Circuit Court of Florida (Pinellas County) to remove her feeding tube. After a heated battle between her husband and parents, Robert and Mary Schindler – who argued Schiavo was conscious – including a series of appeals throughout various courts, legislation designed to keep her alive was struck down by the Supreme Court of Florida. The Court ordered the Pinellas Park Hospice Facility to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube on March 18, 2005. Schiavo died 13 days later from starvation and dehydration.

As the grueling death of Terri Schiavo continues to be lamented, questions remain as to what Schiavo would have wanted had she been able to speak and how truthful Schiavo’s husband was in expressing her wishes. Michael Schiavo was allegedly living with another woman whom he had children with and also stood to profit from her devastating death. Schiavo’s case has garnered much attention from both pro-life and disability awareness groups. The forthcoming anniversary of her death reminds us that there are important and difficult issues concerning the end of life as well as its beginning.

In 2013, the United States is dealing with more and more “Right to Die” cases. Advocates of euthanasia were first successful in 1997 with Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act,” which legalized the practice of physician assisted suicide so that Oregonians could end their lives through “voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose”. In November of 2008, Washington became the second state to legalize physician assisted suicide. In recent years, six states have joined this debate, and of particular interest is the enforcement of criminal penalties for those assisting in the suicide of another person. To date, 38 states have criminalized assisted suicide and only one state – Montana – has a court-recognized statutory “consent” defense for those assisting an individual’s suicide.

Americans United for Life has created model legislation entitled the Assisted Suicide Ban Act which prohibits individuals from assisting in another’s suicide and reaffirms the duty of the state to protect the ethics and integrity of the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath and to promote the life, health, and well-being of all people, regardless of age or ability. The bill provides for both criminal and civil penalties.

Some people argue that criminal penalties are unnecessary; that civil penalties are a sufficient deterrent to keep bad actors at bay. However, enacting and enforcing criminal penalties for those promoting or assisting in a person’s suicide is a necessary component to ensuring the lives of the most defenseless among us are being adequately protected under the rule of law. If the law only provides civil penalties, those laws will not be enforced unless an injured party brings a legal action. In these cases, that person would normally be a family member or beneficiary of the deceased. Civil penalties alone would not stop assisting suicide in cases where the nearest family members are not troubled by, or even have a financial interest related to, the person’s death, as was alleged regarding Schiavo’s husband.

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Criminal penalties for those assisting in a person’s suicide have been constitutionally upheld by the Supreme Court: “In almost every State – indeed, in almost every western democracy – it is a crime to assist a suicide. The States’ assisted-suicide bans are not innovations. Rather, they are longstanding expressions of the States’ commitment to the protection and preservation of all human life.” In Washington v. Glucksberg, the Supreme Court held that a ban on physician assisted suicide does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court ruled that the state has an interest in protecting the lives of vulnerable groups of people, and “that the lives of the terminally ill, disabled and elderly people must be no less valued than the lives for the young and healthy, and that a seriously disabled person’s suicidal impulses should be interpreted and treated the same way as anyone else’s.”

It is the duty of the State to ensure every single individual, abled or disabled, and their family members have full access to all protections under the law against the devastating practice of physician assisted suicide. The presence of criminal – as well as civil – remedies in state law is necessary to ensure this result.