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Physician-Assisted Suicide Legislation: a Template for Eradication?

Therese M. Hessler  |  16 May 2019

Maryland, like many other states, faced the introduction of legislation that would legalize physician-assisted suicide during their latest General Assembly.[1]  Such legislation has brought over 30 years of debates regarding the very real dangers the bill poses based on the lack of so-called, “safeguards”.  While said dangers range from insurance fraud to medical malpractice; as well as coercion and foul play, plus more; new debates regarding the legislation surfaced after the leading advocacy group for legalizing physician-assisted suicide, Compassion & Choices, publicly denounced amendments introduced to the legislation by the Maryland Senate, stating, “the Senate version of the bill adds roadblocks not present in any other state.”[2]

 

After the bill’s initial Senate Committee hearing, committee members carefully addressed a variety of concerns in regard to the proposed legislation.  During a meeting that lasted over seven hours, these committee members went through the bill line by line, carefully examining all possible solutions.  While the majority of the Senate Committee Members believed legalizing physician assisted suicide to be bad policy, they submitted and passed numerous amendments to tighten the bill language in the hopes of addressing some of the bill’s dangers as well as make the bill language fit within Maryland’s current state code.[3]  One amendment removed criminal and civil immunities for doctors and family members, a standard component of Maryland end-of-life care laws such as the Health Care Decisions Act.[4]

 

Kim Callinan, the CEO of Compassion & Choices stated, “It does a disservice when the experience that [terminally ill patients] have is roadblocks.  All the things that they did in this bill will just further deter doctors from practicing and put more barriers in place for dying patients.”[5]

 

Physician-Assisted Suicide has been legalized in Washington D.C., California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, Washington state, and most recently New Jersey (2019).  However, there have been no major amendments accepted to the bill’s language before passing into law and Compassion & Choices has worked hard to keep the legislation as is where legalized.

 

The advocacy group fought to protect the Oregon Death With Dignity Act in court against two challenges, protected the authorization of medical aid in dying in Montana against three legislative attempts to overturn the law; and have protected the law in Vermont against repeated legislative attempts to repeal or weaken the law. They also worked to protect the California End of Life Option Act from legal and legislative attempts to overturn or add safeguards to the law as well as worked to block several attempts from Congress from overturning Washington D.C.’s Death With Dignity Act.[6]

 

These efforts are backed by heavy spending.  As noted on their latest Statement of Revenue and Functional Expenses, the organization spent over $15.6 million dollars on combined lobbying and policy efforts.[7] In Maryland, this number included directly hiring a local lobbying firm to push the bill as well as the CEO of Compassion & Choices flying in for Maryland’s House Committee hearing, Senate Committee hearing, and additional meeting and voting days.

 

This should come as no surprise as Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee co-authored Oregon’s landmark Death With Dignity Act, which went into effect in 1997. Over twenty years later, the group openly shares that “it is the model for medical aid-in-dying legislation nationwide.”[8]

 

This type of commitment to pitch the “model” legislation predates its 1997 passage in Oregon.  In 1991, Coombs Lee helped Oregon State Senator Frank L. Roberts as he proposed one of the first aid in dying laws in the nation.  After Senator Frank Roberts passing in 1993, Coombs became co-author and one of three petitioners for Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act. In 1996 she became the president of Compassion in Dying which became Compassion & Choices in 2005.[9]

 

(Compassion & Choices is an off-shoot of the now nearly defunct Hemlock Society that was started by Derek Humphry in 1980. Humphry left the leadership of Hemlock after publishing his suicide how-to book "Final Exit". Hemlock Society changed its name to End-of-Life Choices and subsequently merged with another right-to-die organization Compassion in Dying in 2005 to form Compassion & Choices.[10])

 

Organized efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Maryland (and Washington State) sync back to the legislation’s original introduction in Oregon by Senator Roberts in 1991.  Although thousands of miles away, “the members of the Hemlock Society of Maryland feel that the struggle [in Washington state] to legalize doctor-assisted suicide is their fight, too.”[11]

 

In 1993, Hemlock Society founder Derek Humphry brought his “right-to-die” message to Baltimore to pitch attendees of a healthcare industry conference to pitch his proposed law to decriminalize physician-assisted suicide and was paid a $5,500 speaker fee to do so.[12]

 

The first efforts to introduce the legislation began in Maryland two years later in 1995; and continued in 1996 but after failed efforts, the state did not see a reintroduction of legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide for almost ten years.

 

Yet, when it was reintroduced in 2015,[13] the bill used the same legislative model that had been used in 1995 and 1996 and had failed – not much had changed since, with the exception of the bill title.  In the years that followed, the text was almost identical[14] following the original “model” and has remained that way in 2016, 2017, and most recently during Maryland’s 2019 General Assembly.

 

Despite major spending on targeted lobbying efforts, policy education, and grassroots campaigning by Compassion & Choices (and other historically affiliated groups) to push the legalization of physician-assisted suicide, it’s clear those efforts are only driving one specific goal – the goal to pass what is referred to as their model legislation – not just in Maryland but in every state they target to pass this legislation. 

 

Why are amendments aimed to protect state citizens from danger deemed “roadblocks” by Callinan and Compassion & Choices?  Why are these duplicities mirrored not just year after year in Maryland but across the country in the 21 other states each year on average that have legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide introduced during their General Assembly?  Is the broader goal more sinister than one that can be imagined after reading the legislation’s bill text?  A goal to eradicate a variety of certain individuals and groups from society by normalizing a means of death that is entirely unnecessary and unethical?

 

It’s hard to be 100 percent certain but there is one thing that is clear – right-to-die groups have an agenda and they will continue to keep pushing it regardless of what it takes and that it will be up to each state to keep asking the tough questions to prevent the legislation from passing so that we will never witness the unfolding of broader goals more sinister than we can imagine, a template for death and the eradication of society.

________________________________

[1] Maryland Senate Bill 311, End-of-Life Options Act. 2019. http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2019RS/bills/sb/sb0311f.pdf.

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/maryland-senate-committee-approves-aid-in-dying-bill-but-advocates-say-its-too-restrictive/2019/03/22/d21bf63a-4cae-11e9-9663-00ac73f49662_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.08348ca0031d.

[3]Adopted Amendments. Maryland Senate Bill 311, End-of-Life Options Act. 2019. https://www.deathwithdignity.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/2019-MD-SB-311-JPC-Amendments.pdf.

[4] http://www.marylandattorneygeneral.gov/Pages/HealthPolicy/hcda.aspx.

[5] https://compassionandchoices.org/news/kim-callinan-the-time-will-come-for-end-of-life-option-act-in-maryland/.

[6] https://compassionandchoices.org/resource/accomplishments-improving-care-expanding-options-end-life/.

[7] https://compassionandchoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Financials-for-06.30.18-and-06.30.17.pdf.

[8] https://compassionandchoices.org/about-us/our-accomplishments/.

[9] https://compassionandchoices.org/about-us/leadership-board-committees/our-leadership/barbara-coombs-lee.

[10] http://www.finalexitnetwork.org/About-Us.html.

[11] Thompson, Ginger. “Md. Hemlock Society supports ‘a matter of choice’ Group lays plans for local campaign” The Baltimore Sun, October 31,1991.

[12] Ettlin, David Michael. “Law for doctor-aided suicide outlined right-to-die advocate addresses conference” The Baltimore Sun, October 7, 1993.

[13] Maryland House Bill 1021, Richard E. Israel and Roger “Pip” Moyer Death with Dignity Act. 2015.

 http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2015RS/bills/hb/hb1021f.pdf.

[14]Maryland House Bill 474, Terminal Aid in Dying. 1996  http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/1996rs/bills/hb/hb0474f.pdf.

Therese M. Hessler, is Associate Director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.