Hawaii legalised assisted suicide this week. It becomes the seventh American jurisdiction to do so. Since 1997, the legislatures of Hawaii, Oregon, Washington state, California, Colorado, Vermont and the District of Columbia have passed laws permitting assisted suicide. In Montana, a court decision found that it was legal, but there has been no legislation.
The new law follows the controversial Oregon model. One of the drawbacks of this legislation is its definition of "terminal illness". It is usually understood to be a condition which will lead to death withinn six months or a year. But if a patient decides to spurn all treatment, treatment which could keep them alive for years, his or her illness will automatically become "terminal". This is a flimsy basis for such an important law.
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A survey of end-of-life decisions for cancer patients involving Flemish physicians has found that in 10.4% of the cases, there was euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide and life shortening without explicit patient request in 1.8%.
The results were published in the British Journal of Cancer and were based on a survey of physicians in Flanders, Belgium, in 2013. The percentages are based, not on cancer deaths, but on the number of end-of-life decisions for the patients. The classification system may seem a bit odd to non-specialists. If the drugs were given with the explicit intention of hastening death, the decision was termed “euthanasia” if “someone other than the patient at the patient ’s explicit request had administered the drugs”; physician-assisted suicide if “drugs had been prescribed or supplied and self-administered”; and “life abbreviation without explicit patient request” if there had been no explicit request from the patient.
The reasons for an end-of-life decision included (along with other motives) the “wish of the family” (28%) and an “unbearable situation for relatives” (12.4%).
Since cancer is the disease most often mentioned as a trigger for a euthanasia request, it is not surprising that requests for euthanasia are higher amongst cancer patients. The authors believe that “in Belgium assisted dying has clearly become a part of medical practice in the care of cancer patients and that the various disciplines of oncology need to be trained in dealing with euthanasia requests”.
The 1.8% of deaths which occurred without explicit request should not alarm anyone about “slippery slopes”, the authors believe. The proportion of such deaths has remained constant ever since euthanasia was legalised in 2002.
However, somewhat confusingly, the authors note that “decision-making took place without the patient’s input in almost 20% of the cases”. These decisions were not necessarily euthanasia; they could have been withholding treatment or aggressive pain relief. But as the authors note, it is still unethical.