Does the libertarian ethos of New Hampshire’s motto “Live Free or Die” include the right to choose the time and manner of one’s own death?
Lawmakers have historically put off having to answer that question, but the time may be coming when they will have to take a stand on the issue of physician-assisted suicide.
Maine became the eighth state to allow medical practitioners to help the terminally ill choose to die when Gov. Janet Mills signed the Death With Dignity Act June 12. With Vermont having passed its Patient Choice and Control at the End of Life Act in 2013 and Canada allowing medical assistance in dying as of 2016, the Granite State is practically a regional holdout in what is becoming a more accepted right. Massachusetts narrowly defeated a state ballot initiative to allow assisted suicide in 2012 and a hearing is slated Tuesday on the End of Life Options Act of 2019.
While Maine’s legislature passed its new law — modeled largely upon that of Oregon, the nation’s oldest right-to-die law — it was unknown what Gov. Mills would do with it; she had not signaled any position on the issue previously. When she did sign the bill, she included a lengthy and eloquent signing statement, along with an executive order to boost protections for ill and elderly citizens and prevent the misuse of potentially fatal drugs.
Mills noted the arguments for and against assisted suicide, including the reasoning of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in a 1987 ruling related to the topic. The court determined then that a person has the right to decline life-sustaining care based on a previously competent patient’s “right of self-determination in matters of health care to be essential to the integrity and dignity of his person.”
The philosophical argument over assisted suicide — or any suicide, for that matter — pits the idea that human life is so sacrosanct that not even the individual can take it against the notion that our free will includes the right to end our own pain and suffering. For many, then, it is a question of whether our lives and souls are our own or have a greater, divine accountability.
The mundane arguments of legislation, however, are more often concerned with protecting those who are vulnerable and the ethics of asking someone else to help you end it all. Does a physician have an obligation to preserve a patient’s life however possible, for example, or to help a suffering patient end that suffering?
Maine’s new law, as has been the case elsewhere, rightly takes the position that end-of-life decisions are not to be rushed into. It is available only to those who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and who are within six months of death. Even then it requires three separate requests to doctors for lethal medications and two waiting periods. And the patient, after all that, must still be able to take the medication without help. Physicians are not compelled to participate.
Mills noted the argument that the state is “playing God” by allowing assisted suicide is not true; it is not up to the government, she wrote, “to decide who may die and who may live, when they shall die or how long they shall live.” But if not for the fact that lethal medications must be prescribed, anyone would be able to obtain them and end their own life without government involvement. In other words, allowing it is neither participating in nor encouraging suicide.
We’d add that those willing to end their lives by a means other than a lethal dose of prescribed medication could do so regardless of the law. Is allowing them a painless option after careful consideration wrong?
Everyone dies. Should the state have the ability to stand in the way of someone choosing when and how that occurs?
Death with dignity legislation has been proposed in New Hampshire in the past, but even measures calling only for the formation of a commission to study the issue have failed or been vetoed. At some point — and we would argue that point has already arrived — it’s a conversation that’s going to have to be had.