Hawaii just made the mistake of becoming the eighth jurisdiction in the United States to allow assisted suicide. We can learn a lot about the folly of this path if we look to other places both here and abroad where assisted suicide is already legal. A quick survey turns up countless instances of the failures of these types of laws to safeguard the most vulnerable.
From Europe there seems to be a constant stream of documented cases related to the practice of assisted suicide and euthanasia, which would give anyone pause.
In the Netherlands, the number of people with lived experience of mental illness being euthanized is rising by the day. There are known cases of such people being abused or coerced into death by people they should be able to trust. A whistle-blowing doctor in Belgium went to the Associated Press with the details of a dementia patient’s death by euthanasia – the patient had never formally asked to die.
A column in the Washington Post recounts another sad story of one case gone very wrong. In 2016, an otherwise healthy elderly woman with dementia, having made an ambiguous advanced directive to end her life “when the time was right,” was euthanized against her will at the request of her husband by a nursing home doctor whose assessment was that the patient’s suffering was “unbearable and incurable.” She prepared the lethal injection. The physician tried silencing the patient’s protests by slipping a sedative into her coffee. When the sedative failed, this doctor had the family of the patient restrain her so that she could administer the lethal injection. The columnist rightly asks, “How many botched cases would it take to end euthanasia of the vulnerable?”
In January, a physically healthy 29-year-old suffering from depression was euthanized. The Daily Mail reported that in Holland in 2013, “a total of 42 people with ‘severe psychiatric problems’ were killed by lethal injection compared to 14 in 2012 and 13 in 2011.”
Are these abuses confined to Europe or are they the inevitable fruits of what is everywhere bad public policy? There is evidence for the latter.
In Oregon, Michael Freeland, who had a 40+ year history of acute depression and suicidal ideation, not only received the lethal prescription but also was allowed to keep the drugs even when all other means of his taking his own life had been removed from his home. Another Oregonian, Kate Cheney, who had been diagnosed with dementia, was first referred for the non-required psychiatric evaluation and denied the lethal dose. Her family shopped for a doctor until they found one who would sign off; the doctor’s report stated that her “choices may be influenced by her family’s wishes and her daughter, Erika, may be somewhat coercive.”
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In fact, just this legislative session, there was a bill before the Delaware General Assembly that would sanction the assisted suicides of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, which flies in the face of the central concerns of the disability rights community: Nothing in the proposed Delaware bill ensures that people actually have access to the pain relief, palliative care and home- and community-based personal care services they need. Moreover, just like all of the proposed bills and assisted suicide laws, it utterly fails to prevent coercion. Coercion to request lethal drugs, like any form of abuse, occurs behind closed doors.
Let’s all note how legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia has led to the tragic death of vulnerable people. Whether in Europe, Canada, or even here in the U.S., this public policy push is unsuccessful at instituting any structures that would protect those who are most vulnerable from abuse and coercion. We can avoid making the same mistake here by rejecting such laws and proposals altogether.