By Richard M. Doerflinger
February 26, 2016
California legalized assisted suicide last year for people diagnosed as
terminally ill, the former Hemlock Society -- now a multi-million-dollar
operation called "Compassion & Choices" or C&C -- has stepped up
efforts to pass similar laws in other states. At the center of its campaign is the
late Brittany Maynard, an attractive 30-year-old cancer patient who moved to
Oregon to obtain a lethal drug overdose prescribed by a physician. Her husband is
now a paid spokesperson for C&C.
the state of Oregon released its 2015 figures on assisted suicide deaths, indicating
how C&C's portrayal compares to the reality.
suicides in Oregon keep rising. There were 105 deaths in 2014 (44% higher than
the previous year) and 132 in 2015 (another 26% higher). In each of these
years, exactly one patient was under
35 years old (that must have been Ms. Maynard herself in 2014). Last year, 78%
of those obtaining lethal drugs were aged 65 and over, with a median age of 73.
Most were women; most had no health insurance, or only government insurance; most
had no living spouse or registered domestic partner. More than 96% received no psychological evaluation, to test for depression or other
conditions that can lead to suicidal thoughts.
presents its agenda as a boon to autonomous people who live life on their own
terms and want to exit life the same way to avoid intractable pain. The usual reality
is different. When asked why they were obtaining the drug overdose, 96% of
patients said they were less able to engage in activities that make life
enjoyable; almost as many said they were losing their autonomy or their
dignity; about half said they had become a "burden" on family or caregivers. Fewer
than 30% cited any concern about pain. Incidentally,
90% died in a private home (their own or that of relatives or friends),
allowing an educated guess as to who they were "burdening" and who was present
to "assist" their final act -- in 79% of cases no health professional was
profile should be eerily familiar to public health experts: it describes people
most at risk of elder abuse. A review of "Elder Abuse" in the November 13, 2015
New England Journal of Medicine estimates
that about 10% of seniors are victims, with financial exploitation of seniors
"a virtual epidemic." More likely to be victims are women aged 65 to 74, living
with household members other than a spouse, of lower income, and feeling
isolated or without social support. Basically Oregon has provided a "safe and
legal" (safe for the perpetrators, that is) way to practice, and cover up, a
most final form of elder abuse. The only reporting is by the physician prescribing
the drugs (who then steps out of the picture), and deaths are recorded as
caused by the person's illness.
more demographic question: What age group in America is least supportive of legalizing assisted suicide? In many polls it
is those aged 65 and over. In a national poll commissioned by the U.S. bishops'
conference in 2014, for example, only 46% of seniors supported the idea. Strongest
support (60%) was found among their grown children -- 35- to 44-year-olds, the
"sandwich generation" now often caring and paying for both children and aging parents.
How tempting it
might be, for those in this situation with no strong moral compass, to believe
that assisted suicide is a new "freedom" for one's parents.
years ago Derek Humphry, Hemlock's founder, wrote in his book Freedom to Die that "in the final
analysis, economics, not the quest for broadened individual liberties or
increased autonomy, will drive assisted suicide to the plateau of acceptable
practice." C&C wants to draw the curtain over this aspect of its agenda. The
rest of us, especially seniors, need to open our eyes and see through the masquerade.
For more on the Oregon law, see www.goo.gl/7tSrR5
Mr. Doerflinger, now turning 63, is Associate Director of
the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For more on the bishops' pro-life efforts see