Why Hasn’t Oregon Expanded It’s Assisted Suicide Law Into Euthanasia?

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 13, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Why Hasn’t Oregon Expanded Its Assisted Suicide Law Into Euthanasia?

RSS Newsfeed Email article
Add to My Yahoo! Printer friendly

by Rita Marker
May 13, 2008

Rita L. Marker is an attorney and executive director of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. She is the author of the critically acclaimed book, Deadly Compassion, that has been called a compelling, persuasive, well-written and revealing discussion of both the personal and public sides of the euthanasia debate. This article is copyright 2008 by the International Task Force.

No matter the event, the venue or the audience – in the United States or in another country – assisted-suicide activists portray assisted suicide as the exercise of personal autonomy that is used to end unbearable suffering.

Conversely, opponents raise concerns that transforming assisted suicide from a crime into a medical treatment would eventually result in its expansion to include euthanasia by lethal injection and to encompass everyone from children to the frail, demented elderly.

Now that assisted suicide has been legally practiced in Oregon for ten years, those who oppose assisted suicide must answer the question: "Why hasn’t Oregon expanded its law?"

The answer is simple: Political expediency.

Expansion of Oregon’s law would be counterproductive for those who have long sought to transform both euthanasia (by lethal injection) and assisted suicide (by a lethal overdose of drugs) into accepted medical treatments.

To understand this, let’s examine a bit of background to Oregon’s law.

Those who are committed to widespread acceptance of euthanasia and assisted suicide tried for years to gain approval for their agenda. However, without exception, their efforts failed. Finally, after defeat of ballot initiatives which would have legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide in Washington in 1991 and California in 1992, proponents realized they needed to change their approach.

They settled on a step-by-step strategy. That strategy called for gaining approval of assisted suicide with "safeguards." Once there, they could begin to expand until they eventually reached their goal.

Oregon passed such a law in 1994 and, after a series of court challenges, it went into effect in 1997. Assisted-suicide leaders were certain that other states would quickly fall in line and adopt Oregon-style laws. But they were wrong. In the years since Oregon’s law has been in effect, more than 20 states (multiple times, in some) have considered proposals that are virtually identical to Oregon’s law.

Yet, each and every one of those proposals failed.

The result?

Expansion plans had to be put on hold.

After all, if other states refused to pass laws in the current, seemingly restrictive Oregon style, it was a sure bet that they’d be even less inclined to follow Oregon’s lead if it were to be expanded.

Euthanasia leaders knew they had their work cut out for them if they were to bring other states into the fold. So, it was back to the drawing board.

That led to a blueprint to break the logjam. It’s called "Oregon plus One."

Studies & Reports
"Oregon plus One" is a new starting point, not an end goal. It’s based on the premise that victory in just one more state will serve as a catalyst to move them ahead toward their eventual goal.

To get that previously illusive win in just one more state, assisted-suicide organizations embarked on a massive effort to polish the image of Oregon’s law by highlighting studies and Oregon’s official reports.

Yet, the studies are far from un-biased and the official reports are questionable at best.

Take, for example, a study, published in late 2007 by the Journal of Medical Ethics. Widely reported in newspapers across the country, its principle author was Margaret Pabst Battin, a University of Utah philosophy professor. Neither the journal nor media coverage of the study noted Battin’s longtime support for death on demand or the fact that she serves on the advisory board of one of the country’s leading pro-assisted suicide advocacy groups – a group that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote the "Oregon plus One" plan.

In addition to such biased studies, Oregon’s annual official reports are, like any other report, only as reliable as the data they contain. Yet those responsible for formulating those official reports admit that they have no way of knowing if the data they receive from prescribing doctors is accurate or complete.

Thus, the basis for the "proof" – contained in studies and reports – is as solid as quicksand.

Reasons for legalizing assisted suicide require expansion
Oregon’s law and the proposals based on it provide that assisted suicide is available to terminally ill competent adults who must self-administer the lethal drugs. At the same time, personal autonomy and ending suffering are the two prime reasons given for such laws. But those reasons, in and of themselves, require that the practice not be limited to self-administration by a terminally ill, competent adult.

Consider the following:

If personal autonomy is the basis for permitting assisted suicide, why would a person only have personal autonomy if he has been diagnosed (or misdiagnosed) as having a terminal condition?

If assisted suicide is proclaimed by the force of law to be a good solution to the problem of human suffering then isn’t it both unreasonable and cruel to limit it to the dying? Once we have changed assisted suicide from a bad thing to be prevented to, at least in some cases, a good thing to be facilitated, isn’t it easy to see how the early "safeguards" could be seen as obstacles to be surmounted?

On what basis could one deny a good and compassionate medical treatment to those who are suffering from chronic conditions? Or from children? Or from those who never have been or are no longer competent?

If a lethal dose of drugs is considered a good medical treatment, isn’t the requirement of “self-administration” both illogical and overly restrictive? What about the person who is physically unable to self-administer the lethal dose? After all, is there any other medical treatment that a physician can prescribe for, but not administer to, a patient?

Expansion predicted
Contrary to what some may believe, talk of expanding assisted-suicide is not a notion that originates with opponents of such a practice. It is actually the leaders of the right to die movement who have discussed that goal, often openly. For example, in his 1991 book, Final Exit, Derek Humphry, the cofounder of the Hemlock Society (now known as Compassion & Choices), explained that restrictive laws would eventually encompass people with disabilities. Humphry wrote, "when we have statutes on the books permitting lawful physician aid-in-dying for the terminally ill, I believe that along with this reform there will come a more tolerant attitude to the other exceptional cases."

In a December 2007 cover story, the New York Times Magazine explained that former Washington State Governor Booth Gardner, who is heading up a campaign to legalize assisted suicide in that state, envisions his campaign as part of a larger agenda. "Gardner’s campaign is a compromise; he sees it as a first step. If he can sway Washington to embrace a restrictive law, then other states will follow. And gradually, he says, the nation’s resistance will subside, the culture will shift and laws with more latitude will be passed…."

In the 2008 book, Giving Death a Helping Hand, Margaret Battin (the author of the study described above) wrote that she doesn’t believe assisted suicide should be "safe, legal and rare." Rather, she said it should be available, "as a preemptively prudent, significant, culminative experience." In the same book, Battin spoke approvingly of a situation in which two young men were planning a fishing trip several months in advance. One of the young men made certain that the trip would not conflict with his father’s scheduled death.

Transforming assisted suicide from a crime into a medical treatment clearly is intended to lead to death on demand. Oregon’s law should be recognized for what it is – a deadly Trojan Horse.