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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Assisted Suicide Act has potential to lead to human rights abuses

With $50, you can buy 10 Subway sandwiches, a pair of Rainbow sandals or a dose of lethal medication.

On Oct.  27, 1997, Oregon passed the Death with Dignity Act, which allows terminally ill patients to end their life through a lethal medication prescribed by their physician. Since then, three more states, Washington, Vermont and Montana, have legalized assisted suicide.  

Recently, this act has been highly publicized by the story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She argued that death with dignity would alleviate the intolerable pain caused by series of surgeries and chemotherapy. She attained the lethal medication and ended her life after her husband’s birthday on Oct. 26.

In Maynard’s case, the Assisted Suicide Act seems to be reasonably ethical. Since she was not depressed nor was she pressured to make this decision, she showed the positive side of this dilemma. However, she is in the minority.

“Only between 10 percent and 15 percent of [terminally ill patients] who attempt suicide eventually die by their own [will],” Dr.  Sandeep Jauhar, a cardiologist, told CNN.

Consequently, the other 85 to 90 percent have to endure the backlash of this act, which proves to promote an already vicious commercial health care system. This law prohibits terminally ill patients who want to live from receiving justified treatment from insurance companies.

For instance, Barbara Wagner, a 64-year-old in 2008, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Doctors prescribed her a $4,000-a-month medication option that the Oregon Health plan refused to cover. Instead, it offered to pay for the $50 physician-assisted death drug.

Despite the severity of her diagnosis, she has never considered assisted suicide even at her lowest point.

In Wagner’s case, the Oregon health care opted for the significantly cheaper choice that is, essentially, forcing someone to die as a result of economic incentives. Pulling the plug early not only violates the right to free choice, but actively hastens death, disrespecting both the patients and their family members who may want to spend their last months together.

"The problem with the Oregon plan is that it sounds like administrators, not physicians, are making treatment decisions," Dr. Jonathan Groner, clinical professor of surgery at OSU College of Medicine and Public Health, told ABC. "And if a patient can get assisted death paid for but not treatment, the choice is obvious."

This trend is also seen in a 1998 study from Georgetown University’s center for Clinical Bioethics that investigated the link between profit motivated health care and assisted suicide. The study warns us of the dangers of "legalizing [physician-assisted suicide] in a medical care environment that is characterized by increasing pressure on physicians to control the cost of care."

Because of this act, there is a real danger that the needs and desires of the patient are disregarded.

In the case described in The Oregonian in October 1999,  85-year-old Kate Cheney was diagnosed with dementia and was pressured by her daughter to take the voluntary lethal medication. The psychiatrist deemed Cheney’s mental situation to be unfit “to weigh the options of assisted suicide” and so declined the authorization of the medication. Upon her assertive daughter’s request, Cheney was re-evaluated at Kaiser Permanente and was prescribed the lethal medication.

Cheney was forced into ending her life because of her mental disabilities. Moreover, her physicians cannot face legal consequences, because of the “safeguard” that prevents any liability against doctors, as long as they claim they acted in “good faith.” This “good faith” belief makes the act dangerous and vulnerable to abuse.

For cases like Brittany Maynard’s, the decision to die is measured and voluntary. For others like Cheney’s, the law is an abuse of human rights, and the risk of more cases like Cheney’s happening far outweighs the likelihood of another noble, Maynard-esque case.

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