Assisted suicide – taking stock of where we are
As the push to legalize assisted suicide— euphemistically termed “medical aid in dying”— continues across the United States, it is helpful to step back periodically and reassess where we are. As of January 2019, seven jurisdictions have legalized assisted suicide: Hawaii (2018), the District of Columbia (2017), Colorado (2016), California (2015), Vermont (2013), Washington state (2008), and Oregon (1994). Montana (2009) has not legalized assisted suicide legislatively, but it is permitted through a state supreme court ruling in Baxter v. Montana.
While much of the media focus is on jurisdictions that have legalized assisted suicide, it is important to recognize the many that have not. In 2018 alone, assisted suicide bills were proposed in Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wisconsin. None were signed into law. In fact, the Patient’s Rights Council reports that since 1994, more than 240 legislative proposals to legalize assisted suicide have been introduced, and subsequently turned down, in 38 states.
So where are the battlegrounds moving forward? The biggest prize is likely New Jersey. First introduced in 2012, the “Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act” (A-1504) was twice passed by the state Assembly but never made it out of the Senate, likely because then-Republican Governor Chris Christie had vowed to veto it. Now with Democrat Phil Murphy in the governor’s office, assisted suicide supporters believe they can get the bill passed and signed into law. Interestingly, Governor Murphy has not indicated whether he would sign the measure if it comes to his desk, but Compassion and Choices has a $1 million digital advertising campaign aimed at passage. Action on the bill is expected in early 2019.
Another battleground state is New Mexico, where the “End of Life Options Act” (HB-90/SB-153) has been introduced in the state legislature. If the bill becomes law, assisted suicide will no longer be considered a crime under New Mexico state law; instead, it will become “medical treatment.” The bill will also allow practitioners (expanded to include physician assistants and nurse practitioners) to make determinations of “eligibility” for assisted suicide through tele-medicine, without ever seeing or examining the patient in person. Finally, the bill will change the time frame of terminal illness. Generally, the term refers to an incurable or irreversible illness for which death is expected within six months. The “new” definition changes this time frame and refers to an illness where death will result “within the foreseeable future.” Contrary to some media reports, the proposed bill does not allow non-residents to travel to New Mexico to commit suicide.
Other states that are expected to take up assisted suicide legislation in 2019 include Nevada, Virginia, and Delaware. In Nevada, an assisted suicide bill (SB-261) passed the state Senate in 2017 but died in the Health and Human Services Committee of the state Assembly. Supporters have vowed to reintroduce it in the 2019 legislative term. In Virginia, the “Death with Dignity Act” (HB-2713) was introduced on January 14, 2019. This is the first time the state will consider an assisted suicide bill. In Delaware, assisted suicide bills were introduced in the 2015-16 and 2017-18 legislative sessions, but never advanced to full votes. The legislator who sponsored the two bills has stated he will reintroduce the measure in this legislative session. Opponents are particularly concerned with the new Delaware bill because it specifically links assisted suicide to “additional palliative care options” for terminally ill patients.
Vigilance, prayer, and engaged effort are needed.
JOZEF ZALOT, PH.D., is a staff ethicist with the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. He earned his Ph.D. at Marquette University, and has worked in Catholic higher education and health care.