WASHINGTON – Legalized assisted suicide has moved from the Northwest to the Northeast and from the ballot box to the statehouse.
Vermont became the third state in the country to enact physician-assisted suicide when Gov. Peter Shumlin signed legislation May 20. It joins Oregon and Washington as the only states to permit terminally ill citizens to take their own lives by using lethal drug doses prescribed by doctors.
The New England state, however, is the first to legalize assisted suicide through the legislature. Oregon and Washington both approved the practice in voter initiatives.
The new law means Vermont residents with terminal illnesses “at the end of their lives now have control over their own destinies,” Shumlin, a Democrat, said on Twitter.
Pro-life advocates, however, decried the bill’s enactment.
Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land called Monday “a sad day for Vermont and a sad day for America.”
“I am saddened that a state of the United States would so abandon the founding principles enunciated in our Declaration of Independence and summarized with the statement ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ that they would completely surrender to the ‘quality of life’ ethic and approve assisted suicide,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a statement to Baptist Press.
“In doing so, they have descended from the mountaintop ‘sanctity of life’ ethic which our forefathers bequeathed us to the dangerous depths and valley of despair known as the mere ‘quality of life’ ethic,” Land said.
Opponents of assisted suicide warned the measure threatens the freedom and lives of defenseless people. They said Vermont’s safeguards against abuse are even weaker than those in Oregon’s law, the first one to gain approval.
The law “provides incentives for physicians and even family members to pressure vulnerable people into dying for the convenience of others,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life (AUL).
It “lays the foundation for deadly acts disguised as ‘care,’“ she said in a written statement.
AUL pointed to the following failures by the law to protect people considering assisted suicide:
It enables a doctor who has examined a patient only once to prescribe lethal drugs for him.
It does not require a doctor to refer a patient to a psychiatrist to decide if he is depressed or being coerced to take his life.
It requires no witnesses when a patient takes the lethal drugs, increasing the potential for people who want to hasten his death to compel him to end his life or to administer the dose themselves.
“This kind of law undermines the humanity of the vulnerable, encouraging a cost-analysis approach to life rather than affirming the humanity of the sufferer,” Yoest said.
Pro-life bioethics specialist Wesley Smith said hospitals, nursing homes and physicians should refuse to take part in assisted suicide – an action permitted by the Vermont law. Some doctors and health-care institutions in Washington have declined to participate under that state’s law.
“Indeed, rather than help kill, doctors and hospitals should post copies of the Hippocratic Oath in their waiting rooms and publicly declare their practice or facility to be an ‘assisted suicide free zone,’“ Smith wrote on his blog. “It would set a great public example by proclaiming loudly that killing is not medicine.”
Oregon reported a record 77 assisted suicides in 2012. Since the law was enacted in 1997, there have been 673 assisted suicides recorded, according to the Oregon Public Health Division.
Washington reported 70 assisted suicides after taking lethal drugs in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available. A total of 157 assisted suicides have been reported in the state since legalization.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)