Remember “Dr. Death,” Jack Kevorkian? He was infamously known for publicly championing a terminally ill patient’s right to die by way of physician-assisted suicide. Kevorkian served eight years in prison on second-degree murder charges, released from his sentence early only after he agreed to state he would no longer advocate his cause, before passing away in 2011.
Well, so much for handing out prison sentences for assisted suicide. Lawmakers in Hawaii have approved medically assisted suicide, making the popular getaway state now the seventh to legalize this practice for the terminally ill. Basically, the legislation, passed by the state Senate and sent to Democratic Governor David Ige, would allow for patients on their death beds to obtain a doctor’s prescription for medication in order to speed up their death. The caveat is that two physicians need to sign off on the fact that the patient has no more than six months to live and is mentally competent enough to make their own end of life decisions.
The measure requires a patient seeking life-ending medical aid to undergo a mental health evaluation, to present two separate requests to an attending physician and for two witnesses to attest to the patient’s wish to die. In order to test a patient’s competence and for medical personnel not to be likened to Dr. Death, a doctor could dispense the medication, but the patient has to actually take it unassisted.
The bill, backed by the Compassion and Choices advocacy organization, is due to be automatically enacted on April 17 unless the governor signs it into law before then or vetoes it. It was approved by the Hawaii House of Representatives on a 39-12 vote on March 6th and cleared the Senate on a vote of 23-2.
Six other states, including California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, already have laws in place to legalize medical assistance for ending the lives of terminally ill patients, and the District of Columbia also has enacted similar legislation. [Editor’s note]: It is also legal in Montana via a state supreme court ruling, not legislation. Those who have advocated for the policies have also sought to widen the parameters to include end-stage cancer patients and those with incurable diseases. These individuals would normally not be included if they have been given more than six months to live, but supporters feel they should have the option to avoid ongoing and extended suffering and pass away in less pain than they may undergo naturally.
The most active opponents to “right-to-die” have included some right-wing religious organizations. Some advocates for the elderly and disabled have also opposed these measures because they feel that unempathetic caregivers and family members named in life insurance policies may unduly pressure patients into ending their lives early.
There have been approximately 200 end-of-life prescriptions written every year since Oregon became the first state to legalize medically assisted suicide twenty years ago, in 1998. Some terminally-ill Hawaii patients have already expressed gratitude their state has jumped on board. Cancer patient John Radcliffe, who was diagnosed as terminal after physicians discovered his colon cancer had spread to his liver, is one such voice for those hoping to reduce their suffering.