Inspired by the public advocacy of terminal brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard, lawmaker in Washington, DC, and at least 16 other states – from California to New York – have introduced bills that would authorize the medical option of aid in dying.
This legislation would allow mentally competent, terminally ill adults in the final stages of their disease the option to request a doctor’s prescription for aid-in-dying medication that they could choose to take it if their suffering becomes unbearable.
As a Catholic and a physician, I feel compelled to dispel the myths about these bills perpetrated by the Roman Catholic Church, some disability groups, and the American Medical Association (AMA).
The Oregon law that is the model for this legislation has a stellar 17-year track record, with no scientifically documented cases of abuse or coercion. Dying adults who go through the lengthy process of obtaining the medication in Oregon hold onto it for weeks or months, as Brittany did, before taking it, if they take it at all.
In fact, more than one-third of those who qualify for the medication never take it, according to the Oregon Public Health Department. But having it in their possession gives these dying patients great comfort knowing they have it if their suffering does become unbearable and there is no other medical option available to help them.
Contrary to opponents’ claims, medical aid in dying is not “euthanasia.” It requires a doctor or nurse – not the patient – to administer the medication. Euthanasia is illegal throughout the United States.
Aid in dying also is not “assisted suicide,” as critics wrongly call it.
The nation’s largest public health association, the American Public Health Association (not the American Medical Association), supports aid in dying. It recognizes that “the term ‘suicide’ or ‘assisted suicide’ is inappropriate when discussing the choice of a mentally competent, terminally ill patient to seek medications that he or she could consume to bring about a peaceful and dignified death.”
The five states that authorize medical aid in dying – Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico – have separate laws prohibiting assisted suicide. The death certificates of terminally ill adults who utilize medical aid in dying in these states confirm that they died from their terminal disease, not assisted suicide.
In addition, 17,000 U.S. doctors from 28 medical specialties support by a 54% to 31% margin the decision of patients with ”incurable and terminal” diseases who want to end their own life, according to an online survey conducted by Medscape.
Despite the opposition to medical aid in dying by some disability groups, polls of people living with disabilities show they support this end-of-life option by about the same percentage as the general population.
As physicians, we should always provide quality end-of-life care for people who are suffering from an incurable and irreversible terminal illness. Yet when a person with only months, weeks or even days to live cannot get relief from extreme pain, we should allow that person the option to end their suffering when the time comes.
My 25-old daughter Emily Rose desperately pleaded for this option during the final few agonizing months of her life last spring when she suffered in horrific pain from terminal leukemia, despite getting great home hospice and palliative care.
As a Catholic, I pray to God for the passage of the bills authorizing medical aid in dying. These laws would ensure that dying Americans have the option to pass peacefully in their sleep, suffer less, and spare themselves the pain of a lengthy and prolonged death that my daughter had to endure.
Dr. Robert Olvera, M.D., is a Harvard-educated physician who specializes in family practice and sports medicine in Orange County, California. He is a volunteer for Compassion & Choices, the nation’s leading end-of-life choice advocacy organization.