Patient in intensive care
The state of Hawaii may be the next to allow physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The state of Hawaii could be the fourth to enact a “Death with Dignity” law allowing terminally ill people to commit physician-assisted suicide. People dictating the terms of their deaths is a fractious issue worldwide.

Obscure law might already permit Death with Dignity in Hawaii

In 2002, according to ABC, the Hawaii House of Representatives passed a bill allowing Death with Dignity, or physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients who want to curtail their suffering. The bill was defeated in the Hawaii Senate. However, a well-known lawyer recently unearthed an obscure law from more than a century ago that might already permit it in the Aloha State.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, attorney Kathryn Tucker found a law from 1909 authorizing people in the end stages of leprosy or other diseases to have their physician assist them in dying. Tucker, according to Wikipedia, is a top legal scholar in the field of assisted suicide. She was a key player in the landmark case Oregon v. Gonzales, wherein the Supreme Court found Oregon’s Death with Dignity law constitutionally permissible.

Many do not take granted prescription

The Death with Dignity laws mandate a patient must, according to CNN, be at least 18 years old and diagnosed with a fatal disease with a prognosis of less than about six months to live. They also have to be mentally capable of making decisions. The diagnosis must be confirmed by another physician.

The request has to be made twice and 15 days must pass between requests. The attending physician will also converse with the patient about alternatives such as other end-of-life care and treatments.  The patient receives the prescription if conditions are met, which is usually about 100 pills worth of Seconal, a barbiturate. The physician does not administer the dose.

In 2010, Death with Dignity prescriptions were administered to 96 people in Oregon and 87 in Washington. Of those, 65 took the prescription in Oregon and 51 in Washington.

Small but growing number of states

Hawaii still has no assisted suicide law and the issue is far from settled. It will likely have to be decided in the courts. However, the issue remains controversial.

According to the Seattle Times, Catholic-affiliated hospitals and health care groups resist the practice, and Washington’s law allows physicians to decline prescribing a fatal dose of medication to terminally ill patients if they object. Oregon’s law passed in 1997, according to ABC. Washington state followed suit in 2009.

Montana, according to CNN, has no law on the books. However, a 2009 Montana Supreme Court ruling found physicians can’t be prosecuted for assisting a patient in dying.

There is a movement under way to put the law on the ballot in Massachusetts, according to the Boston Globe, and similar efforts in Vermont, according to the Addison County Independent, and British Columbia, according to the Winnipeg Free Press.

Sources

ABC: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/retired-hawaiian-doctors-test-102-year-physicians-assisted/story?id=14739855

San Francisco Chronicle: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2011/10/12/prweb8871711.DTL

CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/08/30/assisted.suicide.oregon/index.html

Wikipedia on Kathryn Tucker: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathryn_Tucker

Seattle Times: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2016503475_swedish15m.html

Boston Globe: http://articles.boston.com/2011-09-23/bostonglobe/30194758_1_terminally-human-life-ballot-question

Addison County Independent: http://www.addisonindependent.com/201110group-resumes-crusade-death-dignity-law

Winnipeg Free Press: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/canada/breakingnews/doctors-and-patients-call-for-death-with-dignity-in-bc-supreme-court-documents-131292239.html

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