Having recently emerged from a multi-month blogging hiatus, I feel guilty for not having addressed the pending Massachusetts physician-assisted suicide initiative.
This November, Massachusetts citizens will vote on an initiative to establish an Oregon-like regime of physician assisted suicide. The full text of the initiative is here; the Oregon Death With Dignity Act, on which the Massachusetts initiative is very closely modeled, is here. The proposed law would permit competent, terminally ill patients to receive from their physicians a prescribed lethal dose of medicine with which to end their own lives.
I was against physician-assisted suicide (PAS) before I was for it. I feared that PAS would be offered to poor people, poorly-educated people, and minorities, in lieu of more difficult- and expensive-to-provide high-quality end-of-life care. Others (not I) worried about a slippery slope from assisted suicide (where the patient kills herself) to euthanasia (where the doctor gives, for example, an injection to a patient who wants it), and thence to involuntary euthanasia (where a doctor gives an injection to a patient who doesn't want it, or whose desire to die is not well-documented). Others worried that the availability of PAS would undermine incentives to improve end-of-life care and palliative medicine. And still others (again not I) worried about an assisted-suicide regime giving rise to a "duty to die;" that is, a sense among elders that they really ought to commit suicide rather than inconvenience their children, or cost them too much money.
What I feared would happen has not happened. If you look at Oregon's annual reports about who uses their assisted suicide program, what you find is that most are white, well-educated urban dwellers, already in home hospice care. Minorities are barely involved with the program, let alone being disproportionately its "victims." As I say to my students, it appears that assisted suicide is for control-freaks. No case of euthanasia, voluntary or involuntary, has been established in either Oregon or Washington, so that slope seems not to be so slippery. And Oregonian hospice care and palliative care has not suffered after the introduction of PAS; indeed, it has prospered. It remains a vexed question, though, whether end-of-life care in Oregon is good because of pressure exerted by the existence of the assisted suicide option, or whether, alternatively, assisted suicide performs well in Oregon because its end-of-life care is so unusually good; or, indeed, or whether both things are true.
Have we slipped down the slope toward a duty to die? I see no evidence.
My own position on physician-assisted suicide is completely open to revision in light of empirical data. Can someone show that people who don't want to die are being pushed into assisted suicide? I'll count that as important evidence against PAS. Can someone show that PAS programs enhance the quality of end-of-life care? That'll count in its favor. Can someone show that medicine is completely able--not just in ideal circumstances, but on the ground in real clinical settings--to control the suffering of patients at the end of life? Then I'd drop my support for physician-assisted suicide altogether.
One thing I won't do, though, is stop calling Physician Assisted Suicide by that name. Many who lobby in favor of PAS want to jettison the negative associations of the word "suicide," and point out that we are, at least for the moment, talking about people who are dying anyway, and who would, in many cases, prefer not to. The word "suicide," they argue, doesn't fit the cases they're talking about. But to my perhaps-overly-legal mind, the word "suicide" simply applies to people who are killing themselves, even if they're killing themselves because they're dying. Other phrases (Aid in Dying, for example) are inexact, in that they cover not only PAS but also voluntary active euthanasia. Words mean what they mean, usually; the battle, in my view, should not be about claiming that the terminally ill aren't really committing suicide, but rather about the deeper point that some suicides are morally, even religiously, permissible. Think about the harm of death: the suffering attending the dying process, the loss of integrity and control, the loss of a future you'd like to live to experience. The person who rationally elects PAS avoids the suffering, maintains and even establishes integrity and control, and has no desirable future to lose.
If I were a Massachusetts resident, I'd vote in favor of the initiative.