By Father Gerald D. Coleman, S.S.
The New York Times recently reported that “more states are adopting aid-in-dying laws” as a way of giving people “a legal way out” when life becomes unbearable, (Jan 17, 2017).
Close to 20 percent of Americans now live in jurisdictions where adults can legally end their lives if they are terminally ill and meet eligibility requirements. Since October 2015, California’s End-of-Life-Option makes it legal to seek and self-administer drugs to hasten one’s death.
A substantial majority of Americans favor the right of a physician to facilitate a person’s request for death when a disease cannot be cured or is causing overwhelming pain and dysfunction.
State “opt-out” provisions allow any individual, for example, a doctor or pharmacist, or institution to decline to participate in aid-in-dying. In addition, California hospitals and hospices can forbid their affiliated physicians to write the necessary prescriptions for lethal drugs, even if they are acting privately.
Catholic health care systems have opted out due to the Church’s moral tradition on the sanctity of all human life as well as the availability of more viable alternatives. The Americans with Disability Act of 1990 disavows physician-assisted suicide, as does Vitas, the nation’s largest hospice chain.
In California, some private insurers pay for the necessary doctors’ visits and drugs. However, Congress has long prohibited the use of federal dollars for aid-in-dying, and consequently Medicare and the Department of Veterans Affairs will not cover these expenses. California has agreed, however, to cover the costs for Medicaid recipients.
The most commonly used drug for physician-assisted suicide is Seconal, which costs anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000. Valeant Pharmaceuticals, the drug’s manufacturer, has denied exploiting the new laws doubling its price since 2015, when the drug was generally sold for $200. As a result, some physicians are turning toward alternative medications using combinations of opioids and sedatives.
After nearly 20 years in Oregon and 8 years in Washington where physician-assisted suicide is legal, less than 1 percent of recorded deaths involve physician-assisted suicide. And, for those who do request physician assistance, about one-third do not actually follow-through and use the prescription to end their own lives.
Consequently, even when the legal option is present, most Americans do not choose to die in this way. Perhaps more people are coming to see that medicalized suicide is a false compassion as it not only eliminates suffering but also the person.
Effective palliative care helps suffering persons to devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives and to arrive at a sense of peace with God. Learning how to face this last stage of life is one of the most important things each of us will ever do.
Aid-in-dying short-circuits this stage and denies that every person sustains human dignity no matter how frail.
For further discussion about these topics, register for “Living Well, Leaving Well” hosted by Catholic Charites at Saint Lucy Parish on February 23. Presenters: Father Gerald Coleman and Ryan Holmes, Assistant Director of Health Care Ethics at Santa Clara University. To register, go to: www.CatholicCharitiesSCC.org/decisions.