Physician-assisted suicide is back in the news this month. On February 4th, a group of doctors and terminally ill patients filed a lawsuit asking a court to legalize aid in dying to terminally ill patients in the state of New York. On February 6th, Canada’s Supreme Court struck down a ban on physician-assisted suicide for competent adults in a unanimous decision. On February 11th, a 53-year-old woman battling aggressive leukemia sued California, seeking the right to physician-assisted death for the terminally ill in that state. And on February 20th, Newsweek will circulate an issue that includes the following cover story: “Death Becomes Them: The Dutch Are Choosing Euthanasia if they’re Tired of Living. Others May Soon Follow”.
Canada joins a short list of countries that currently permit physician-assisted suicide, the majority of which are in Western Europe. Switzerland’s Penal Code permits assisted suicide as long as there are no “self-seeking motives”. In Germany, doctors can prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients, but they must let the patient ingest or inject those medications themselves. The Netherlands (Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act), Belgium (Act on Euthanasia) and Luxembourg (Law on the Right to Die with Dignity) have all passed laws that permit mentally competent people suffering unbearably from an incurable illness to request medical assistance to die.
Other countries in Europe are considering similar laws. Lawmakers in France, for example, are currently debating a bill that would allow doctors to keep terminally ill patients in “deep, continuous sedation until death” when their illness is life-threatening in the short term. And in the United Kingdom, the “Assisted Dying Bill” was tabled in the House of Lords in June 2014.
Only five states in the U.S. permit physician-assisted suicide, namely Oregon (1994), Washington (2008), Montana (2009), Vermont (2013) and New Mexico (2014). Oregon, Washington and Vermont passed laws that permit physician-assisted suicide. Montana and New Mexico legalized the practice through court rulings.
Brittany Maynard’s story and decision to end her life in November 2014 sparked a national conversation about death with dignity, which has since prompted lawmakers in a handful of states to propose legislation permitting physician-assisted suicide. And as discussed above, groups of doctors and terminally ill patients have filed lawsuits to legalize the practice in states like California and New York.
Trends in policy reform suggest a growing acceptance of assisted-physician suicide in both the U.S. and Western Europe. States in the U.S., however, will have to determine just how far they are willing to go when it comes to following in the footsteps of Western European countries. Unlike the in U.S., where a doctor is permitted to prescribe lethal drugs only to a terminally ill patient, countries in Western Europe also permit the doctor to administer such drugs to the patient. And Belgium, the country with the world’s most liberal law on physician-assisted suicide, allows children to request to die with dignity under certain circumstances.
States in the U.S. are likely not ready to grant such broad rights to either doctors or patients in the area of physician-assisted suicide. However, the conservation about the right to die with dignity continues, and it will be interesting to see where we are as a country in 25 years.