Terminally ill patients are vulnerable where there are assisted-suicide laws

Mike Miller  ·  Jul 01, 2015


By Michael Miller

Terminally ill patients need protection from physician-assisted suicide because of their vulnerability, whether it be from a new or old disability, an economic situation, depression, pain, or a lack of information about available help, says Matt Valliere of Patients Rights Action Fund.

For instance, Matt says, government-funded health care may not pay for a cancer patient’s treatment that can cost thousands of dollars per month, but would cover the cost of drugs for assisted suicide, which can sometimes cost less than $100.

“Once it’s in the law, it affects every person in a state,” Matt says. “Insurance companies just code it the same way they code every other single treatment in the world. It’s just another option, and they will offer that option and pay for that option, because it’s so much cheaper.”

That’s what happened with retired school bus driver Barbara Wagner in Oregon. When her doctor prescribed a new chemotherapy drug for her in 2008, the state-run Oregon Health Plan declined to pay for it, but added that it would pay for comfort care, including “physician aid in dying,” according to a story on KATU.com.

Oregon also offered prostate cancer victim Randy Stroup coverage for assisted suicide instead of pricey treatment. The health plan’s policy at the time, according to FoxNews, was to not cover “life-prolonging treatment unless there is better than a 5 percent chance it will help the patients live for five more years.”

Also at risk are those who have lost mobility due to illness, Matt says. “They’ve lost their independence, they’ve lost mobility, they can’t use the bathroom themselves, you name it,” he says. They have, in other words, become disabled. As a result, they sometimes request assisted suicide, possibly unaware that organizations are ready to help them adjust to their disability.

“You’re saying that those who are disabled are actually unable to live a dignified life or that their life isn’t worth living,” Matt says. “We aim to protect those lives because they truly are dignified and they are worth living.”

The elderly “can oftentimes be coerced by their children or others,” he says.

The problem in this case is with the assisted-suicide laws’ process of requesting lethal drugs from a doctor. Requests must be made verbally and in writing with witnesses, but without a doctor needing to see the patient. The prescription is then mailed directly to the patient’s home and can be filled at a local pharmacy.

The terminally ill are vulnerable to assisted suicide for many reasons, and Christians have to be proactive to help protect them.

“Once that person leaves the pharmacy with the prescription, there’s no oversight,” Matt says. “Nobody has to be there. Nobody has to watch whether heir number one or a worn-out caregiver is forcing these pills down grandma’s throat.”

Others are asking for the pills because they’re depressed. In some cases, Matt says, people making the request had decades of mental illness. People turned away because of that are able to go doctor-shopping until they find one who is willing to give them the medication. There is no requirement for a psychological evaluation, and most doctors aren’t qualified to make one anyway. Matt says that studies have indicated that while a low percentage of those asking for lethal drugs in Oregon and Washington state are referred to psychological evaluation before the prescription is made, many more of them may be depressed.

Probably one of the most common arguments made for allowing assisted suicide is to end suffering.

“Say somebody is of perfectly sound mind but they’re suffering terrible pain, et cetera, why not let them kill themselves?” Matt says. “That’s a question that’s different than the one other patients are trying to ask. It’s a moral question.”

And it’s one that can be answered with palliative care, which is “specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses” that “focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness,” according to getpalliativecare.org.

“If a patient is suffering at the end of life, they need a new doctor,” Matt says. “That kind of physical suffering is generally treatable. You can be made comfortable.”

Dr. Ira Byock put it this way when he testified against Vermont’s assisted-suicide law: “Alleviating suffering is different from eliminating the sufferer. Allowing a person to die gently is importantly different from actively ending the person’s life.”