By Nancy Valko
Despite emails and other efforts to encourage the US Congress to exercise its legal authority to stop the Washington, DC doctor-prescribed suicide (DPS) law, the expected congressional action was not completed within the 30 legislative days required.
However, there may be hope on the horizon according to a February 18, Washington Times article that said “Congress can still neutralize the Death with Dignity Act by cutting off its funding through the appropriations process.”
What went wrong with the process of nullifying the DPS law in time? No one seems to know.
But one thing we do know is that Compassion and Choices, the well-funded DPS activist organization, will continue its relentless fight over and over again in every state without a DPS law and in the courts to make DPS legal throughout the US. But even that is not the final goal.
Ominously, we are now seeing DPS leaders like influential lawyer Kathryn Tucker even criticizing the so-called “safeguards” in DPS laws as “burdens and restrictions”. She now argues that DPS should be “normalized within the practice of medicine”.
What We Need To Know And Do Now
We cannot just depend on lobbying our politicians and legislatures to fight DPS only when such bills are introduced in states legislatures or as public referenda. We must constantly reinforce our message that every life is worthy of respect and care, not medical termination.
But we must also understand that the DPS/euthanasia movement has had decades of experience in shaping and publicizing its lethal message through carefully crafted steps to convince the public that doctor-prescribed suicide must be legalized to prevent or end suffering.
As I wrote in my 2013 article “Then and Now: The Descent of Ethics”, the DPS/euthanasia movement has been very busy in the last several decades. I included a short history of the movement that people should know:
The 1970s brought the invention of “living wills” and the Euthanasia Society of America changed its name to the Society for the Right to Die. The so-called “right to die” movement received a real boost when the parents of Karen Quinlan, a 21-year-old woman considered “vegetative” after a probable drug overdose, “won” the right to remove her ventilator with the support of many prominent Catholic theologians. Karen continued to live 10 more years with a feeding tube, much to the surprise and dismay of some ethicists. Shortly after the Quinlan case, California passed the first “living will” law.
Originally, “living wills” only covered refusal of life-sustaining treatment for imminently dying people. There was some suspicion about this allegedly innocuous document and, here in Missouri, “living will” legislation only passed when “right to die” advocates agreed to a provision exempting food and water from the kinds of treatment to be refused.
But, it wasn’t long before the parents of Missouri’s Nancy Cruzan, who was also said to be in a “vegetative” state, “won” the right to withdraw her feeding tube despite her not being terminally ill or even having a “living will.” The case was appealed to the US Supreme Court, which upheld Missouri law requiring “clear and convincing evidence” that Nancy Cruzan would want her feeding tube removed, but, in the end, a local judge allowed the feeding tube to be removed. Shortly after Nancy’s slow death from dehydration, Senators John Danforth and Patrick Moynihan proposed the Patient Self-Determination Act (never voted upon but became law under budget reconciliation), which required all institutions to offer all patients information on “living wills” and other advance directives. Since then, such directives evolved to include not only the so-called “vegetative” state and feeding tubes but virtually any other condition a person specifies as worse than death and any medical care considered life-sustaining when that person is deemed unable to communicate.
But this “choice” is becoming an illusion. In 1999, Texas became the first state to pass a medical futility law to allow doctors and/or medical committees to override advance directives and patient or family decisions to continue life-sustaining treatment on the basis that doctors and/or medical committees know best when to stop treatment.
In the 1990s, Jack Kevorkian went public with his self-built “suicide machines” and the “right to die” debate took yet another direction. By the end of the decade, Oregon became the first state to allow doctor-prescribed suicide. At first, the law was portrayed as necessary for terminally ill people to die with allegedly unrelievable pain. Within a short time, though, it was reported that “according to their physicians, the patients requested assistance with suicide because of concern about loss of autonomy and control of bodily functions, not because of concern about inadequate control of pain or financial loss.”
Other states eventually followed Oregon but efforts to pass DPS laws often failed in other states so Compassion and Choices (the former Hemlock Society) promoted palliative/terminal sedation and VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking) as a legal alternative to DPS in states without such laws.
Compassion and Choices has found much success in working with sympathetic news outlets and pollsters to encourage the public and even medical professionals to support DPS.
Even TV’s popular Dr. Phil McGraw hosted a 2012 segment featuring a Canadian woman who wanted her adult disabled children to die by lethal injection. Ironically, the mother, along with former Kevorkian lawyer Geoffrey Feiger, argued that removing their feeding tubes was an “inhumane” way to end the lives of the adult children. Tragically, when the studio audience was polled, 90% were in favor of lethal injections for the disabled adults. Disability organizations protested after the show, writing that “By conveying social acceptance and approval of active euthanasia of individuals with disabilities by their family members, the segment threatens their very lives.”
Exploiting the natural fear of suffering most people have has also led to a growing acceptance of the premise that it can even be noble to choose death instead of becoming a burden on family members or a drain on society. It is up to us to combat this attitude of despair by not only educating ourselves and others about the facts and dangers of DPS but also by offering hope and support to those of us most at risk.