Is ‘death with dignity’ right for Colorado?
Last weekend, a young woman by the name of Brittney Maynard, surrounded by friends and family, took a fatal dose of barbiturates and intentionally ended her life.
Ms. Maynard had glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. At the time of her diagnosis, she was told that she would have a relatively short time to live, that she would eventually lose many of her mental capacities along the way and that prior to her death, she would experience many painful symptoms of her condition.
In the days and weeks after her diagnosis and prior to her death, Ms. Maynard began experiencing the severe headaches, seizures and mental incapacities that her doctors predicted.
Ms. Maynard got the barbiturates used to end her life from her doctor, who knew of her intentions and who prescribed the drugs. She and her doctor had the option to engage in this process because they lived and practiced in Oregon, which became the first state to enact so-called “death with dignity” legislation in 1994.
Death with dignity, or doctor assisted suicide to use a less sanitized phrase, was not available to Ms. Maynard until she migrated from California to Oregon, one of the few states where doctor-assisted suicide is legal. A doctor in California (or Colorado) who assists a patient to end his or her life in the manner that Ms. Maynard ended hers could potentially face significant professional, if not criminal, sanctions. Meanwhile, there are certainly people in all states who would avail themselves to this right if they had the option.
In my own experience as an attorney who has counseled many clients with regards to advance medical directives and end-of-life issues, I have encountered many people in our state would like to have the option that Ms. Maynard had. Accordingly, I think Colorado and its new legislature should consider whether to adopt a death with dignity law.
Sometimes an event like Ms. Maynard’s life and death sparks a conversation. I think it’s a worthy conversation to have here.
In aid of this conversation, it would be helpful to understand what the death with dignity laws generally provide.
According to http://www.deathwithdignity.org, the Oregon legislation, which was model for other states with death with dignity laws, requires that to qualify, a person must be diagnosed as having a terminal condition by two physicians. These physicians must also certify that the patient has sufficient mental capacity to make the decision to end his or her life and that the patient is able to self-administer the drugs used to hasten death. The patient must have repeatedly expressed the desire to end his or her life, both orally and in writing over a several week period, and a physician must inform and discuss with the patient other options, including hospice and palliative care.
Evident in this legislation are procedures to control against abuse. Certainly, there is potential for abuse. For example, critics of doctor-assisted suicide are concerned that people will be unduly influenced or coerced to end their life. This is certainly a legitimate concern. I can recall a discussion with a colleague a few years ago, when the estate tax was temporarily under repeal, that some large estate holders might try to time their death to take advantage of favorable tax laws. We were half joking. Half not.
Let me be clear, under no circumstance should a patient be pressured by others, including the IRS, to end his or her life or that the right to doctor-assisted suicide be extended to people with a treatable condition. Under no circumstance should a doctor who objects to or disagrees with the concept of assisted suicide be required to participate in it. If death with dignity legislation cannot address these concerns, I would say that it should not be adopted. Many people believe that Oregon adequately addressed these concerns in its laws, but to adopt the legislation here, we would need to carefully study these issues and satisfactorily address them.
The question of whether policies can be enacted to address abuse does nothing to address the legitimate concerns of those who have moral, philosophical, or religious objections to doctor assisted suicide. I have my own opinion, but those concerns are the purview of others, including ethicists, religious clergy, and each individual citizen.
That being said, I think that, for a state that prides itself on preserving and protecting personal liberties (i.e. Second Amendment rights and marijuana), it’s time to consider whether it’s time for us to adopt a death with dignity act.
Matthew Laurel Trinidad is a private attorney specializing in estate planning and business law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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