Conn. right to open debate on assisted suicide
On Friday, Connecticut legislators agreed to reconsider the state's laws on physician-assisted suicide. The General Assembly this session will take up a bill that would make it legal for doctors to prescribe lethal medications to terminally ill patients. The bill is already generating controversy in Connecticut.
The state needs to have this debate on assisted suicide. While the bill under consideration may not be perfect, our current laws regarding assisted suicide are unfair and should be revised.
Physician assisted suicide is legal under strict conditions in four states in the US- Oregon, Washington, Montana and Massachusetts. It's also legal in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland. Assisted suicide has been legal in all of those countries except Luxembourg since 1942, and it accounts for between .05 percent and 3 percent of all deaths annually in those countries annually.
Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland are also the only three countries whose laws concerning assisted suicide extend to the non-terminally ill. Patients with severe depression can receive medical assistance with suicide. Belgium just passed a law making assisted suicide legal for people of all ages, including children, and the Netherlands has ruled that child assisted suicide is permissible in some cases.
In the US, the laws in each state vary, but require a doctor to certify that a patient is terminally ill in order to qualify for lethal medications. The patient must be mentally competent and they must meet a number of other requirements, including waiting periods, review by other doctors, having an understanding of all other options for treatment available and psychiatric evaluations.
In Connecticut, it's not illegal for a terminally ill patient to end his or her own life. However, it is illegal to assist someone in committing suicide. The law is designed to protect patients near the end of their lives from being taken advantage of, and the concerns it addresses are valid and will certainly have to be considered in any new laws.
It doesn't, however, address those concerns as well as legal assisted suicide would. A case from West Hartford two years ago shows the shortcomings of our current law. Bruce Brodigan was charged with manslaughter after helping his father George, a prominent Hartford lawyer who had developed alzheimer's commit suicide. George died from a mixture of alcohol and his son's antidepressants. Brodigan told police that his father had planned to end his life before the disease made too much progress and that "it was the most beautiful, loving moment" he had with his father.
On one hand, Connecticut's laws forced a man to use prescription pills that weren't his, and another man went to trial for trying to help his father fulfill his dying wish. On the other hand, a man in a compromised mental state was put to death by someone with a vested interest in the matter.
If assisted suicide were legal, there would be better ways to deal with these conflicts of interest. The General Assembly is set to consider that bill that is modeled on Oregon's right-to-death law, which requires that a physician approve a patient's case for assisted suicide. George Brodigan's case would have had to be reviewed by two doctors who were not related to him and did not stand to benefit in any way from his death. We'll never know much more about the Brodigans' decision than we do now, but there's a chance it was the most sensible and compassionate choice and what George sincerely wanted.
The bill under consideration would recognize that voluntarily ending life can be a reasonable decision in some cases and make the process more fair and sensible. Patients would have the autonomy to seek lethal medication on their own instead of having to appeal to someone close to them for help. They would have to pass numerous safeguards and be aware of other options.
The bill can't prevent someone from going around the law as Bruce Brodigan did if they couldn't get approval from their doctor, but neither can the current legislation. In light of that, making assisted suicide legal is the best decision overall. It's a difficult choice but one patients should be able to make for themselves.
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