Culture of death

California has now become the fifth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide with Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature last week. It is ironic that in a time touted as the apex of the expansion of individual freedom, the new rights in highest demand are the right to kill oneself and the right to dull one’s senses with recreational marijuana use. Are we seeing the limitations of atomistic freedom as a path to human happiness?

A bill that would have promoted assisted suicide was proposed in the Utah Legislature, in the name of “autonomy and self-determination,” last legislative session. The bill was heard but House Health and Human Services Committee referred the issue to a study during the interim.

An important note in the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal points out that these kinds of laws create particular vulnerabilities for those with fewer economic resources. They point to an instance in Oregon where a patient was denied insurance coverage for treatment of lung cancer but offered coverage for access to lethal drugs. There is reason to be concerned that these kinds of laws will have a disproportionate impact on the poor.

The logic is simple: Those who are wealthy or have better insurance coverage may have access to palliative care and thus not feel the same desperation as someone in the same medical condition who did not have access to this care. Even more troubling, when public support is required to support medical care, there’s reason to worry that the state might promote euthanasia for patients of limited means as a cost-saving measure.

In European nations, where acceptance of euthanasia is more advanced, there has been a significant “mission creep” in the laws, with an increasing acceptance of euthanasia for non-terminal illnesses and serious concerns raised about the lack of real protective oversight. Last year, Belgium approved a law allowing euthanizing children. A harrowing story from the New Yorker describes some of these concerns in practice. A recent Australian news video describes some other cases.

It’s not clear whether this debate will come to Utah in a significant way. So far, in the United States, the laws have been limited to states with dramatically different social climates. The suggestion is that Maryland, New York and the District of Columbia are the next targets.

Whatever the timing, Utah should begin looking carefully at the experiences of other states and nations. These experiences give important support to the principle that doctors and other health care providers should not be in the business of helping people to take their own lives, much less pressuring them to do so.

Photo credit:  Sigfrid Lundberg via Wikimedia