GA considering bill to legalize assisted suicide


PROVIDENCE — The House Judiciary Committee last Wednesday heard testimony on two bills before the General Assembly of special concern to the Church — one related to an attempt to legalize assisted suicide in Rhode Island, and the other which seeks to expand the scope of practice of physician assistants, something the state’s Right to Life chapter fears could empower those in these positions to perform surgical abortions in the absence of a doctor, unless the language of the bill is made very specific to exclude that possibility.

The Assisted Suicide bill (H7659), sponsored by Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Providence), with a similar bill in the Senate, is largely based upon Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act,” which, enacted in 1997, allows terminally-ill Oregonians the right to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose. If passed, the bill would make Rhode Island the fifth state to legalize physician assisted in the U.S. in addition to Vermont, California, Oregon and Washington.

Supporters of the bill sported buttons that read “Death with Dignity,” while those opposing the legislation spoke about how such a law could pose very real risks for those who have no intention of dying.

Julie Lamin offered impassioned testimony on behalf of her mother, Susanna Brown, who did not feel well enough to come to the State House again this year — as she did last — to make her case against a physician assisted suicide bill.

Brown, 75, is currently undergoing chemotherapy for the metastatic breast cancer that she has been living with for years. Last year, she told Rhode Island Catholic that she sees her condition as chronic, not terminal, and worries what desperate decisions people in a similar situation could conceivably make about their future should such a bill become law.

“This bill insults the dignity of her life. It scares her,” Lamin said of her mother’s fears about people being given the option to end their lives in the face of an illness, one they may not fully understand.

“She’s struggling, but she wants to live. If you take that hope away, you get despair. She has hope until her last breath.”

Margaret Dore, who serves as president of Choice is an Illusion, an organization which has fought against assisted suicide/euthanasia legalization efforts in many states, expressed her concern that while the bill seeks to assure patients of choice and control in their care, it is instead stacked against the patient and is a recipe for elder abuse.

“The bill describes these practices as ‘hastening death,’ but there is no requirement that a person be near death,” said Dore, who is also an attorney. “Indeed, ‘eligible’ persons may have years, even decades, to live.”

She is also concerned with the potential consequences of allowing a patient’s heir, who could benefit from the patient’s death, to actively participate in signing a patient up to receive the lethal dose of medication.

“After that, no doctor, not even a witness, is required to be present at the death. Even if the patient struggled, who would know? The bill creates the perfect crime,” Dore said.

John B. Kelly, the New England Regional director for Not Dead Yet, the national disability rights group that has long opposed euthanasia and assisted suicide, cited in his testimony a 2014 CBS News report that physician misdiagnosis affects 12 million Americans yearly, putting half at risk for severe harm.

“So if you receive your prescribed dose from a doctor and their colleague after they misdiagnose you, you may tragically and needlessly cut short your life,” said Kelly, who is confined to a wheelchair.

He said that assisted suicide advocates have taken what was essentially a bureaucratic criterion in defining terminal illness and made it the linchpin of their new medical “treatment,” which is state-approved barbiturate poisoning.

Barth E. Bracy, executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life, said that the bill would allow for “doctor shopping,” in which an ailing and depressed individual who wishes to die would keep searching until they found someone, not necessarily their own physician, to agree to their wishes and sign off on the life-ending protocol.

“Under the bill severely depressed individuals and others could receive pills without counseling,” Bracy said.

The committee voted to hold for further study the assisted suicide and a bill to expand the scope and practice of physician assistants in the state, one which Bracy said must be amended to ensure that the assistants would not be allowed to perform abortions.

“I don’t believe it was the intent of the bill sponsors to empower physician assistants to perform surgical abortions, but this effect will be virtually certain unless the bills are amended to maintain Rhode Island’s longstanding policy that only physicians may perform surgical abortions,” Bracy said.