Assisted Suicide: Legality and Ethics

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Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act took effect in 1997. Since then, four more states now permit some sort of physician-assisted suicide for people who are terminally ill.

Proponents say that assisted suicide gives the power to the patient to take control of his or her life in the end. Opponents say such laws could be used to coerce frail or elderly people who have become burdens, financially or otherwise, on their family or caretakers.

Still others warn that insurance companies may turn to these policies to avoid expensive treatments.

Mildred Solomon, president of non-profit bioethics research institute The Hastings Center, said that having the option to take their own lives gives some people the sense of some form of control that helps them accept death peacefully.

“Part of the argument that proponents have given is that this is meant to also be psychologically reassuring, to help people feel that they are in control” she said. “And once they know they have this ability, they can relax and enjoy the time they do have.”

Solomon also said that not everyone who requests the medication use it.

“About a third who request it don’t ever act on it,” she said.

Diane Coleman, president of the grassroots disability rights group Not Dead Yet, said that many factors surrounding the issue have not been properly examined, including the impact of the for-profit health care industry.

She cited the example of Barbara Wagner, who in 2008 was denied coverage for a cancer treatment that would have extended her life a matter of months, but was offered the option of coverage for the medication to kill herself.

“[She]” received a letter from the Oregon health plan, which is their Medicaid agency, saying that they couldn’t get their prescribed chemotherapy but they could get assisted suicide covered under the program,” Coleman said. “That caused a big stir, it was on ABC news, and as a result, the state doesn’t send that letter anymore. So it doesn’t actually change whether assisted suicide is provided, and it doesn’t change what the coverage provisions are in the state program.”

Is physician-assisted suicide an ethical and humane option for people who are terminally ill and choose that option? Listen to the full hour to help you decide, and let us know what you think.

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