Physician-Assisted Suicide Is Legalized in Washington State


NRL News
Page 12
November/December 2008
Volume 35
Issue 11

Several Health Care Provider Groups Announce Refusal to Participate
Physician-Assisted Suicide Is Legalized in Washington State
BY Jennifer Popik, J.D.

By a 59–41% margin, Washington became the second state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. The measure, I-1000, was closely modeled after the Oregon law that has been in practice for over 10 years. The new law will take effect in March 2009.

Although there was a broad-based coalition which opposed the measure that included disability rights groups, religious groups, and the Washington State Medical Association, the pro-suicide movement simply had more money and more opportunity to spread its message.

The Seattle-Post Intelligencer reported that I-1000 backers raised $5.5 million, more than 60% from outside Washington, while the Coalition against Assisted Suicide raised merely $1.6 million. With a considerable financial advantage as well as the vocal advocacy of Booth Gardner, a popular former governor, the pro-assisted suicide forces were able to falsely frame the debate around compassion and personal choice.

Once the ballot initiative goes into effect, doctors will be permitted to prescribe a drug dose to a terminally ill patient on request. However, merely because a patient may request the physician assist in their suicide, health care providers are not required to do so.

The Washington State Medical Association, an outspoken opponent of the initiative, has said that “[t]here’s no requirement if physicians aren’t comfortable with honoring their patients’ wishes.” Over and above the individual physician’s decision not to participate in assisting suicide, there is already a major hospital system taking the step of proactively prohibiting its doctors from participating.

According to Providence Health spokeswoman Karina Jennings, “We believe we don’t have to participate and plan to exercise a conscience clause allowing us to be exempt.” Providence Health, which is the largest provider of medical care to eastern Washington, operates eight hospitals.

Another organization, Hospice of Spokane, is also choosing not to participate in the law. It has already released a statement saying that its mission is to provide care and support for patients, not hasten their death.

Legally and legislatively, other challenges remain. The coalition against I-1000 met recently to discuss whether a legal challenge might be feasible. Barring any such challenge, state officials must write the ballot measure into law.

One critical decision lawmakers will face is whether state dollars that go to pay for health care may be used to cover the lethal doses of medicine. Oregon, whose public health program does cover the prescription suicide drugs, recently made headlines when its state health care program denied several patients cancer drugs, but issued letters reminding them of their option to utilize physician-assisted suicide.

Understandably, there is fear among pro-lifers that this sort of ballot initiative will spread quickly from state to state. Although the ballot loss in Washington raises significant concerns, it is important to note that there have been dozens of similar legislative and ballot challenges to legalize physician-assisted suicide all across the nation that have failed.

Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, has gone on record saying that her organization pledges to keep attempting to advance assisted suicide in the other 48 states. She said, however, that they do not yet know where they will focus their efforts.

Lee, in a statement praising passage of the initiative, highlights a fundamental misunderstanding that exists in the pro-death movement. She said, “Now, dying Washington residents can turn to legal aid in dying instead of feeling forced into violent, crude methods to end their suffering.”

Surely, real “compassion” would compel a caregiver to intervene when a person feels pressured into suicide in the first place. In today’s world of medical technology and pain control, the understandable fear of pain and death as one faces the end of their life should never to lead to suicide—physician assisted or otherwise.

The Washington State Medical Association aptly summarized: “Doctors oppose I-1000 because our training and experience in the practice of medicine directs us to heal and comfort, not to cause death. The WSMA believes physician assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the role of physicians as healers. Patients put their trust in physicians and that bond of trust would be irrevocably harmed by the provisions of this dangerous initiative.”

This message ought to be kept in mind when confronting other similar assisted suicide challenges that lie ahead.