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  • Nearly half of the U.S. is weighing bills that would make assisted suicide legal, showing signs that the debate among Americans regarding one’s ‘right to die’ is growing. 
  • Virginia lawmakers recently voted Tuesday to push forward a bill to the state Senate that would allow doctors to euthanize patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses, while another in Arizona would allow a patient to direct a doctor to withhold food and water. 
  • “To address each of their needs and alleviate their suffering, patients deserve high quality medical, palliative, and hospice care – not suicide drugs,” Bishops Michael Burbidge and Barry Knestout of the Diocese in Richmond, Virginia, said in a statement. 

Lawmakers in 19 states are debating legislation this year that would make it legal for a doctor to provide life-ending treatment for patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses.

Currently, assisted suicide is legal in the United States in Oregon, Washington state, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, New Jersey, Vermont, Hawaii and Washington, D.C. Bills to expand access to the procedure have been proposed in 19 states this year, showing a growing interest in the debate of a doctor’s role in helping a patient end their life.

Assisted suicide was first made legal in Oregon in 1997 with Vermont, Washington State, Montana and California following soon after. New Mexico was the most recent state to adopt the measure in 2021, allowing patients with six months to live or less to take their life after going through a mental competency screening process and, if they pass that, a 48-hour waiting period, according to KQRE News, a local media outlet.

The new bills, however, are coming from all over the country in states like Arizona, Virginia, Tennessee and New York. Officials in Virginia passed a bill, allowing patients with a terminal illness to request a doctor provide a “self-administered controlled substance” to end their life, through the state Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee Tuesday and will likely vote on the legislation in the Senate in the coming days, according to WUSA9, a local media outlet.

Proponents of the bill argue that individuals should be able to make choices about their lives for themselves, including when they die. Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, who suffers from progressive supranuclear palsy, wrote a letter in support of that argument which was read to the state Senate in January.

“There are 1000s of Virginia’s dealing with terminal illnesses facing unthinkable challenges and choices because of these devastating health conditions,” Wexton wrote. “That is why this legislation is so critical. It is a vital step allowing Virginians to gain the dignity, freedom and peace of mind we deserve in the face of a tragic terminal illness like mine.”

On Sunday, however, Bishops Michael Burbidge and Barry Knestout released a statement saying that the Catholic Church was “alarmed and deeply saddened” and encouraged the congregation to contact their elected officials to raise concerns about the bill.

“People facing the end of life are in great need and must be accompanied with great care and attentiveness. To address each of their needs and alleviate their suffering, patients deserve high quality medical, palliative, and hospice care – not suicide drugs,” the statement reads.

In the 23 years that the procedure has been legal, 5,330 people have died in the U.S. due to assisted suicide and 8,451 Americans received a prescription for the medication, according to a 2022 study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Another bill in Arizona would allow a patient to write a “living will” that would give a doctor permission to withhold “food and liquids” from the patient. The bill would also give a physician immunity from “criminal or civil liability” when making “good faith health care decisions based on the provisions of an apparently genuine living will,” which detractors argue may allow a doctor to starve a patient even if the patient is asking for food.

The U.S.’ neighbor, Canada, which has dramatically expanded assisted suicide access over the last several years, indefinitely halted part of its medical assistance in dying (MAID) program, which allows people with mental illnesses to legally commit suicide, after a lack of psychiatrists were willing to sign off on the medication under those terms, according to The National Catholic Register. The MAID program was first approved in 2016 and was only allowed for a person whose death was “reasonably foreseeable” while suffering from a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” but was later amended to include mental illnesses such as depression.

Some have expressed concerns that the U.S. is heading in a similar direction. In a 2023 article for the American Journal of Bioethics, Daryl Pullman, a research professor of bioethics at Memorial University, referenced Grant Gillett, also a professor of Biomedical Ethics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, who said that when people want a “quick and tidy solution” for a complex problem like depression or terminal illness, “Euthanasia is just such an answer.”

“The analysis offered here demonstrates that not every proposed approach to managing this complex human problem will necessarily result in the abandonment of moral judgment, but moral judgment must both inform and be constrained by the law. Canada has much to learn from the US in this regard. Conversely, the US should keep a wary eye on Canada so as to avoid the precipitous slide now happening there,” Pullman concluded.

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