Assisted suicide laws will pressure poor, elderly, depressed to die

I am grateful to Reps. Luis Correa (D-Calif), Juan Vargas (D-Calif), James Langevin (D-R.I.), Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), Ralph Lee Abraham (R-La.), Darin LaHood (R-Ill.), and Andy Harris (R-Md.) for introducing a Sense of Congress resolution that takes a big step toward protecting me and many others from a death-too-soon by assisted suicide.

When assisted suicide becomes accepted public policy it threatens the lives of everyone, especially the poor, elderly, mentally ill, disabled, and terminally ill. Why? Well, for starters, abuse is unavoidable and doctors are fallible. Assisted suicide policy also injects government insurers and private insurance companies with financial incentives into every single person’s end of life decisions.

One supposed “safeguard” built into assisted suicide laws is that a patient be given a prognosis of six months or less to live to qualify. But people with serious or terminal illnesses outlive their prognoses every day.

After I was diagnosed with grade 4 glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), I was expected to live for only four months. The surgeon said my cancer was inoperable and three different doctors told me there was nothing they could do. I would have easily met the criteria for accessing assisted suicide if I lived in a state like Oregon or California, where assisted suicide is legal.

In a dark moment, I might have opted for it, but I am fortunate to have a supportive family, and was given the opportunity to pursue cutting edge, experimental treatment instead. Here I am three years later, enjoying the arrival of our second son and living life to the fullest.

Even the most experienced doctor cannot predict with certainty how long a patient battling serious illness will live or when they might fall into treatable depression in the course of their illness.

A serious or terminal diagnosis, illness-induced disability, or a fear of being a burden can cause clinical depression in a significant number of patients. But, the 2016 Oregon Health Report shows that in Oregon only 4 percent of patients considering ending their lives were referred for psychological evaluation — yet a 2008 study showed that 25 percent of patients requesting assisted suicide suffered from major depressive disorder. These numbers suggest that persons with mental illness could well be prescribed a death-too-soon, rather than treatment for depression.

Several of those people tragically went on to receive the lethal drugs instead of treatment for their depression. Clearly, psychological distress in terminally ill patients is underdiagnosed and undertreated, placing these patients at great risk.

It is important to see, too, that legalizing assisted suicide introduces government agencies and for-profit insurance companies into everyone’s end of life decisions — which will result in limiting everyone’s choice. It is already happening to patients trying to pursue treatment for serious illness where assisted suicide is legal. They are being denied coverage for life-sustaining or curative treatment and being offered less expensive assisted suicide drugs instead.

In Oregon, there were the well-documented cases of Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup. And more recently, the experiences of Stephanie Packerand Dr. Brian Callister show that assisted suicide policy negatively impacts the vulnerable who wish to live. In each of these cases, coverage for the more expensive, life sustaining or curative treatment was denied or delayed and assisted suicide drugs were offered instead. It is no surprise that insurance providers would act on financial incentives and take the cheaper option every time.

It is because of these and many other dangerous consequences that there is a broad coalition of organizations behind the bipartisan resolution opposing the legalization of assisted suicide. Medical associations, groups that advocate for persons with disabilities and the elderly, as well as advocates for the terminally ill all oppose assisted suicide.

It is time to come together as a nation to reject assisted suicide policy and protect the vulnerable, because one day you might be among them.

J.J. Hanson is a terminally ill brain cancer patient and president of Patients Rights Action Fund, which provides financial and strategic support to patients and people with disabilities by opposing assisted suicide legalization efforts.

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