A Graceful Exit: Redefining Terminal to Expand the Availability of Physician-Facilitated Suicide
Lewis, Browne C.
For almost ten years, Oregon stood alone as the state that permitted terminally ill persons to choose the time and manner of their deaths. Finally, in 2009, Oregon received company when the State of Washington’s physician-facilitated suicide statute officially went into effect in March of that year. Supporters of the statutes hailed the enactments as a victory for persons seeking to die with dignity. Persons from groups like Compassion & Choices vowed to seek similar legislation in the remaining states. Representatives from the Washington State Medical Association, hospice groups and hospitals argued that the mandates of the statutes place physicians in an unnatural position. In particular, the Medical Association’s spokesman stated that physicians take an oath to save lives, not end them. Despite these objections, the number of persons in the country who support physician-facilitated suicide has continued to grow. At the end of 2009, the Montana Supreme Court indicated that physicianfacilitated suicide is not against the state’s public policy. This Article does not join the debate about the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. Rather, I have two goals. First, I suggest ways the current statutes could be improved to address the concerns of the critics of physician-facilitated suicide. Second, I recommend ways to expand the availability of physician-facilitated suicide so that more people can exit gracefully. To that end, I analyze the laws in Oregon and Washington and argue that the current statutes need to be amended to effectuate their legislative purposes. That analysis shows that the legislatures in those states attempted to regulate the process in order to protect the interests of terminally ill patients and physicians. The statutory mandates are a step in the right direction, but much work remains to truly honor those interests. The statutes should be amended to close certain loopholes and to ensure that the physician-facilitated suicide option is available to all of the patients who need it. Persons suffering from physical conditions that will lead to death within six months should not be the only persons permitted to exit gracefully. As long as the safeguards included in the statutes are followed, there is no good reason to prohibit persons suffering from irreversible and incurable physical diseases that lead to death from being classified as terminal. In addition, persons diagnosed with irreversible and incurable brain disorders, like severe dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, should be able to avail themselves of the rights provided by the physicianfacilitated suicide statutes. Alzheimer’s patients suffer a slow, painful death. They revert to childhood and forget everyone around them. The mental death they suffer is similar to the physical death experienced by terminally physically ill patients. During the early stages of the disease, most Alzheimer sufferers are still competent enough to request physician-facilitated suicide. Therefore, the statutes should be amended or interpreted to give them that option.