Thursday, February 13, 2014

Is there a trend in "aid-in-dying"?

The issue of assisting someone to end his or her life is not a new issue in the law.  We all know the issues, as well as the decisions by the Supreme Court and lower courts.  Now, with five states where "physician-assisted suicide" is allowed, is this the beginning of a trend?  The New York Times ran an article by Erik Eckholm on February 7, 2014 suggesting that more states may be considering the issue. ‘Aid in Dying’ Movement Takes Hold in Some States notes that bills are being advocated in some states, including Connecticut. 

Interestingly, the article examines the role of vocabulary in the public's support for the movement.  The article cites to a May 2013 Gallup poll where  "70 percent of respondents agreed that when patients and their families wanted it, doctors should be allowed to 'end the patient’s life by some painless means' ....[but] only 51 percent supported allowing doctors to help a dying patient 'commit suicide.'”

The Gallup poll offers this conclusion:

Americans generally favor allowing doctors to assist terminally ill patients in ending their lives, but the degree of support ranges from 51% to 70%, depending on how the process is described. A wording that refers to the patient's intention to end his or her life as "suicide," doesn't say family members are involved in the decision, and doesn't specify that the procedure will involve "painless means" produces lower support than the alternative wording. However, the resulting difference offers important insights into the complex nature of Americans' views on this question, as well as the negative connotation suicide has, generally. Underscoring this, the same poll finds just 16% of Americans saying suicide is morally acceptable. At the same time, the public is evenly split over whether "doctor-assisted suicide" is morally acceptable: 45% say it is, and 49% say it is not.

If you teach the "right to die" and physician-assisted death in your classes, you should take a look at this poll. The Times article also tells the story of a person with a prognosis of six months to live, who lives in one of the states that does not recognize aid in dying. The author of the article quotes several leaders in the field, including Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, who says "it makes a tremendous difference ...  to live where the law permits assisted dying. Too often people seek alternatives in shame and secrecy, sometimes making frantic international trips for lethal drugs or using more violent means to kill themselves."  She references some research from Oregon about the peace of mind patients may feel by just having the option, with a number who die without taking the prescription.  

The article also presents the points made by those who do not support these intiatives.  The article can be a good start for a good discussion in our classes.

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