A hearing has been set for March 14 at 3 p.m. on a bill that aims to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide in Alaska. House Bill 54, sponsored by Anchorage Democrat Rep. Harriet Drummond would permit doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients for the purpose of suicide.
The upcoming hearing will include “testimony by invitation only,” which means that testimony from the general public will be heard at a later date.
Bill sponsor, Drummond, is expected to give a general overview of the bill at the March 14 hearing in the House Health & Social Services Committee, after which, members of the committee can ask questions of the sponsor. Though verbal testimony from the public will not be heard until later, written testimony can be submitted at any time. Such comments are sometimes utilized by committee members in framing the issues when asking questions of the bill’s sponsor during the hearing.
In the case of HB 54, opponents of the practice include physicians and faith leaders who believe that patients with terminal illness need proper care, not destruction.
Alaska’s highest ranking Catholic prelate who leads 30,000 Catholics in Southcentral Alaska — Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne — has called doctor-prescribed suicide “a violation of principles of good medicine.”
Archbishop Etienne siad that, in the face of suffering health care should strive for the “elimination of as much suffering as we possibly can through moral practices that respect that dignity and sanctity of human life, but to help people to take their own life is a violation of principles of good medicine.”
The Alaska bill is part of a national push by an outside, multi-million-dollar operation called Compassion & Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society. To date, doctor-prescribed suicide — euphemistically called “medical aid in dying” and “death with dignity” — is legal in six states.
Many patient and disability advocacy organizations — such as Access Alaska — oppose doctor-prescribed suicide because it targets vulnerable citizens who need care but are pushed to die.
“When people with disabilities see themselves as a burden, without worth or dignity, as taught or experienced in society, the option for assisted suicide becomes more of an attractive option,” Doug White, executive director of Access Alaska told the Catholic Anchor. “We teach, advocate, support and foster the belief that all people have intrinsic value to themselves, their family and their community.”
Drummond has argued that doctor-prescribed suicide should be available to Alaskans with a “terminal” condition or who are expected to die within six months — though such predictions are notoriously unreliable and could include people with chronic illness or disabilities not receiving appropriate treatment — and who are “experiencing so much pain that their quality of life is completely degraded,” though the bill does not specify that a person must be in pain to request lethal drugs.
But pain is not among the top reasons for taking lethal drugs. According to the Oregon Health Authority’s “Death with Dignity Act Annual Reports,” in 2015, over 90 percent of patients cited “losing the ability to engage in activities making life enjoyable” and “losing autonomy,” and 48 percent cited being a “burden” on family, friends or caregivers.
Most victims are vulnerable elders. “It seems solitary, dependent and chronically ill seniors are prime candidates for assisted suicide in Oregon,” the U.S. bishops’ conference notes. Physical and psychological pain is treatable. According to a report by the National Institutes of Health: “…if all patients had access to careful assessment and optimal symptom control and supportive care, the suffering of most patients with life-threatening illnesses could be reduced sufficiently to eliminate their desire for hastened death.”