House bill seeks to loosen restrictions on physician-assisted suicide


PROVIDENCE — On Wednesday, March 22, the House Judiciary Committee met to discuss HB 5210, a bill that seeks to loosen the restrictions on physician-assisted suicide.
Known as the Lila Manfield Sapinsley Compassionate Care Act, the bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Edith Allejo, District 1 (Providence/East Providence/Pawtucket/Central Falls) on January 9.
The proposed legislation states that no doctor, nurse or other medical professional will be subject to professional or legal repercussions for prescribing life-ending substances to a patient who is terminally ill under the following conditions: firstly, a prognosis has been given that the patient will most likely die within the next six months, the patient asks for the life-ending substance of their own volition (twice verbally and once in writing), and their requests were attested to by at least two witnesses, at least one of whom was not an “interested party” (a child, a spouse, a family member, an heir, the doctor, or the owner or operator of the hospital).
Variants of the bill have been proposed before the Rhode Island General Assembly by Rep. Allejo at nearly every legislative session since 2015.
Some feared that, in spite of attempts to prevent abuse of physician-assisted suicide, the guardrails against such abuses were too vague.
Such was the concern in the testimony of William McKenna, the former representative of District 18 (Cranston).
“H5210 is a good bill for insurance company profits, but not for the vulnerable, particularly the lonely and depressed,” McKenna stated, noting how the widespread acceptance of physician-assisted suicide helps insurance companies to save costs on medical care at the expense of the mental and physical health of patients.
McKenna noted that those most likely to receive physician-assisted suicide are those who suffer from the effects of depression or social isolation.
“Often lonely and depressed persons have bought the lie that they are a burden to society instead of precious treasures. Under this bill, they would be offered assisted suicide, ratifying this notion.”
Father Bernard A. Healey, J.C.L., S.T.L., director of the Rhode Island Conference, submitted written testimony.
“The Church specifically opposes Physician-Assisted Suicide as it seeks to legalize the intentional taking of human life; this deliberate act violates the most basic tenet of our belief in the dignity and sacredness of life and simultaneously poses many dangers to vulnerable populations,” he wrote in his testimony.
Father Healey also noted several spiritual or existential problems with physician-assisted suicide.
Quoting from a 2011 document by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Father Healey noted that assisted suicide is an illusory expression of freedom, one that in fact undermines human freedom, for in dying, one eliminates the possibility of making any alternative choices or of reversing ones decision.
This same USCCB document also showcased the fear that widespread acceptance of physician-assisted suicide may lead society to undermine the dignity of the elderly, the sick and the disabled, which may lead society to undermine the value of human life in other areas of life.
Also in his testimony was a quote from a 2014 speech by Pope Francis, in which the pope noted that physician-assisted suicide is predicated on the notion that the epitome of “quality of life” is material comfort free from any suffering, a mindset which separates physical or material well-being from the larger spiritual, religious, and interpersonal elements of human life.
Building on this, Father Healey concluded, “For Christians, other religious believers, and all people of goodwill, dying is not an evil to avoid at all costs. It is a step in a journey that continues in the next life with God. But even those without faith can recognize the intrinsic value of human life. They can see that suffering persons need solidarity and support more than a loaded syringe and an easy exit…”
Lisa Church, a professor of accounting at Rhode Island College and a political activist who has spoken out frequently on the topic of assisted suicide, also spoke out about the potential abuses of the bill.
“Assisted suicide laws contain provisions intending to safeguard patients from problems or abuse. However, research shows that these provisions are ineffective and often fail to protect patients in a variety of ways,” Church said.
Church went on to quote from a 2019 report by the National Council for Disabilities, which claims that insurance companies often subsidize physician-assisted suicide if such line of action is more inexpensive than potentially life-saving treatments.
The report also outlined the risk of people receiving physician-assisted suicide as a result of a misdiagnosis, and noted that people who suffer from depression and disability are at an increased risk of the abuses associated with physician-assisted suicide.
Church also went on to note how it is easy to underestimate the potential costs or problems associated with assisted suicide, since difficult to investigate potential mistakes or abuses associated with physician-assisted suicide, as a result information on this being difficult to ascertain due to doctor-patient confidentiality.
Similar sentiments were expressed in the written testimony of Lisa Cooley, the coordinator of the diocesan Office of Life and Family.
“The Church teaches that physician-assisted suicide violates the sacred value of all human life, especially those vulnerable due to illness, age or disability,” Cooley wrote, going on to note that those who suffer “need compassion, love and support more than a quick and desperate decision to cut their life short.”
Cooley introduced a broader series of concerns, including the fear that the profit-motivated nature of our current healthcare system may put patients, particularly the most vulnerable, at risk of abuse.
This is something reinforced by the bill’s rather broad definition of “terminal illness,” which makes no distinction between those who will die in the near future from incurable illnesses and those who will die in the near future from curable illness, which in turn creates a mindset that physician-assisted suicide is allowable for any and every reason.
The meeting of the House Judiciary Committee ended with the bill being tabled for further study.