HealthZette

The Pressure to Die When They Want to Live

End-of-life legislation is sweeping the country because 'it's what patients want' — really?

A wave of death-with-dignity legislation is making its way across the country. Last year, Colorado followed California and became the sixth state to enact laws allowing physician-assisted suicide. Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has also signed a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients, pending approval from Congress.

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The trademark claim by lobbyists and other proponents of these laws is that terminally ill patients deserve to choose to end their lives quietly and with dignity instead of with suffering and agony. Palliative care over long periods of time also incurs much greater costs than a single bottle of pills — and insurance companies have already proven that in many instances, they will deny life-extending treatment to patients who want to live instead of die.

Insurance companies have already proved that in many instances, they will deny life-extending treatment to patients who want to live instead of die.

For example, 64-year-old Barbara Wagner had a recurrence of lung cancer that doctors believed would kill her. When her doctor prescribed a $4,000 drug that could extend her life and ease her suffering, Oregon Health Plan refused to cover it. The insurance group did offer her a suicide pill, however. Similarly, 53-year-old Randy Stroup applied to the state health insurance plan for chemotherapy when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Again, the insurance company responded that it would not cover the cost of his chemotherapy, but would help him buy the pills to kill himself.

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition in London, Ontario, says these aid-in-dying laws are less about compassion and more about handing over one’s right to live to doctors. All the positive campaigning and advertising is not based on the experiences of the patients but on the self-reporting of the doctors who help patients die.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Death with Dignity Laws” source=”https://www.deathwithdignity.org”]Death with Dignity statutes allow mentally competent adult state residents who have a terminal illness with a confirmed prognosis of having six or fewer months to live to voluntarily request and receive prescription medication to hasten their inevitable, imminent death.[/lz_bulleted_list]

“How the law works is that the doctor decides to write the prescription,” Schadenberg told LifeZette. “The doctor agrees that yes, this is appropriate. Rarely does the first doctor go to the second doctor to get that approved. Compassion and Choices [a pro-euthanasia lobby group] has a list of doctors who approve this. [Patients] almost never go to a non-pro-euthanasia doctor, so even then it’s a rubber stamp. After you die, the doctor who wrote the prescription sends in the report.”

We have no data from the families affected by this. Schadenberg took a team of filmmakers to Belgium, where assisted suicide has been legal since 2002. He interviewed 64 individuals who had direct experience with euthanasia — people who had lost grandparents years early, children who had lost parents because of depression. Parents there are also allowed to euthanize their children. And the Belgian aid-in-dying law isn’t limited to terminally ill patients; it includes patients with disorders or disabilities.

Related: Dying Young Mother is Denied Care

One father, Lionel Roosemont, describes in Schadenberg’s documentary, “The Euthanasia Deception,” that he would take his 13-year-old daughter for walks in the park, and people would come up to her wheelchair and ask why he hadn’t euthanized her. His daughter, now 20 years old, was born with a brain defect that inhibits her speech and capabilities. “She’s a joy for every one of our family members. We cannot imagine her being gone,” said Roosemont in the documentary.

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Proponents of these laws often cite excessive pain as the reason people choose suicide. Schadenberg says his research revealed that almost nobody who chose suicide rated their pain very high. Instead, they chose physician-assisted death for social reasons: They didn’t want to be a burden to family members, they felt depressed about their condition, or they felt ashamed about their new disabilities.

Related: Get Moving, or Get Busy Dying

“Pain is the flag they wave,” Schadenberg said, but really these patients are experiencing “fear of future pain, fear of future suffering.” Many of them did not have immediate pain. “The real question is why are people asking for physician-assisted suicide?” he noted. Sometimes these patients receive pressure from their families and others to end their lives when they should be receiving support and help.

However — not all countries agree this is a good idea for their society. Australia just turned down a measure to legalize suicide. Although more states are legalizing this movement, it doesn’t have unflagging momentum. Many have opted instead to provide terminally ill patients with palliative care to relieve their pain and help and support to lift their mental suffering.