This year in Massachusetts, voters will decide on Question 2: an initiative petition to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the commonwealth. Ignoring any moral issues, the initiative is vulnerable to abuse and should not be passed into law.
Dignity 2012, a group in support of the issue referred to as ‘Death with Dignity,’ claims the proposed law “contains strict safeguards to ensure that the patient is making a voluntary and informed decision.” The safeguards written into the law, however, are insufficient. First, nearly all responsibility rests in the hands of a patient’s physician. Section 6 of the initiative states that no patient shall be prescribed the life-ending medication if either of two physicians deem that the patient suffers from a “psychiatric or psychological disorder or depression.” While the theory behind this precaution is practical, it falls short of effective. Only 15 days separate the date of request from the date of prescription of the lethal dose. There is no clear definition of what tests must be run in this time to check a patient’s mental capacity. According to Jennifer Popik, a medical ethics attorney, “There is no requirement that the patient be given a psychiatric evaluation... This means that a physician ... can prescribe suicide to that patient without even a specialist’s evaluation.” The “safeguard” concerning mental health is rendered useless because a psychiatric evaluation is not compulsory. A similar law in Oregon serves as a warning: According to a report by the Oregon Public Health Department, of the 71 patients who chose physician-assisted suicide last year, only one was referred for psychiatric evaluation.
Death with Dignity would open the door to a new form of elder abuse. Patients must submit three requests for the death-inducing drug. George Eighmey, a proponent of Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, argued in an interview this month with Rachel Zimmerman of WBUR, “It’s all about choice. You decide. No one else can decide for you. No one can force you into it, coerce you into it.” Eighmey’s argument is fundamental for supporters of Death with Dignity. Advocates seek control over end-of-life care and have built mandates into the act to combat outside influence. The requests must be witnessed by two individuals, one of whom can be a blood relative and/or an heir. Nonetheless, nothing prevents a beneficiary from encouraging a patient to choose assisted suicide. Moreover, once a doctor prescribes the drug, there are no safeguards in place to monitor how it is consumed by or administered to the patient.