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New Yorkers should reject assisted suicide

A recent Viewpoints article by Dr. Robert Milch, a palliative care doctor, urged the legalization of physician aid-in-dying. Milch believes that the solution to suffering is to end the life of the sufferer. Embracing such a belief system is an inherent conflict of interest for any physician.

There is already a growing distrust of physicians as well as managed-care facilities as to their motives. Embracing assisted suicide only fuels this distrust.

While many patients with terminal conditions have depression, depression is treatable. Introducing the topic of assisted suicide as a solution is misguided. The vast majority of individuals given appropriate support and pain control choose to extend their lives.

Milch asserts there are no problems with the slippery slope perceived by some and no cases of abuse in the “decades” of data from Oregon. This is not true. Dr. William Toffler, a physician at Oregon Health & Science University and co-founder of Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation (PCCEF), provided documentation of the many problems and abuses with physician assisted suicide and euthanasia.

One of his many examples was a patient, Michael Freeland, with a history of recurrent depression and recurrent lung cancer. He had contacted the PCCEF, confusing the organization with Compassion and Choices, which promotes assisted suicide. The volunteer at the PCCEF helped him to get the care he needed and relief of his pain.

Freeland had a prescription from a “death with dignity” doctor to end his life – a doctor who didn’t even recognize his patient was depressed and suffered from recurrent depression all his life. Freeland lived almost two years after he was given the lethal prescription – long past the six months specified in the so-called safeguards.

This inability to “crystal ball” the future happened to me personally with my mother. She passed away in hospice in 2014. The doctors did not think she would live long. Yet she outlived their predictions. Our family gathered around her as she celebrated her 91st birthday. She also was able to interact with two new great-great-grandchildren. We were grateful for each day that the excellent hospice care gave her.

Furthermore, studies have shown that people who are not in pain but who may fear pain are more likely to express a desire for assisted suicide than those who are terminal and are already experiencing pain (Lancet 1996).

The Netherlands has both physician assisted suicide and euthanasia and there are so many circumstances in which this law has been loosely interpreted. What began with a hard case of a dying adult with advanced cancer has now expanded to include people with mental illness and minor debilities. The Netherlands has even legalized the killing of babies (Groningen Protocol) born with disabilities.

Of course, with socialized medicine, euthanasia helps contain health care costs because the government doesn’t have to pay for care and treatment that might otherwise be needed for a given illness. This is already happening in Oregon as well. Oregon’s Medicaid health plan does not cover chemotherapy in some individuals with guarded prognosis but does cover 100 percent a prescription for a patient to kill him or herself, as happened with Barbara Wagner, who had recurrent lung cancer.

Adding to the problems with assisted suicide is the lack of direct oversight. There is virtually no monitoring of physicians. There is also no standardized assurance that the person is mentally competent, either at the time of the request or when the overdose is taken. The only reporting is secondhand or thirdhand because the physician is rarely there at the time the overdose is taken. No one checks to see if there is coercion or the potential for a family member to profit (think life insurance beneficiary) from the early demise of an aging or disabled parent or spouse. Since no one is directly monitoring the process, is it any wonder that few, if any, problems are reported to the Oregon Health Division?

Yes, the slippery slope is all too real. Is this the path New York citizens want?

As a pediatrician, I am appalled that assisted suicide is also being promoted for children who are terminally ill. How can a young brain that is not yet fully mature be allowed to make that kind of a decision?

New York’s proposed legislation to legalize assisted suicide is at best misguided. New Yorkers should reject assisted suicide as the solution to suffering.

Gloria Roetzer, M.D., has been a physician at Williamsville Pediatric Center since 1997. She is a member of the Buffalo Pediatric Society, American College of Pediatricians. She is an active member and past president of the local chapter of the Catholic Medical Association.