Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners –This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Welcome back for another episode of Legal Tea! Today’s topic is a current trend … something going on in the current time or that I’ve stumbled across on the news or social media, that is pertinent to my little estate and elder law world. This week’s episode is on arguably a controversial topic … assisted suicide. Now, what honestly made me think of diving into this topic is I stumbled upon an article about assisted suicide and I thought it would be somewhat pertinent to chat about on here. You may be thinking, “How’s that, Jenny?” Well, it’s pretty simple – I have a lot of clients, and clients’ family members, who face end-of-life health care situations and decisions. Because of that, there have been a few times that clients have said something like this: “In the dying process, we often treat animals better than humans.” What they’re likely referring to is when owners of animals “put them down.” In medical terms, euthanasia.
So, when I hear comments like that, I’m reminded of class in law school where we briefly discussed assisted suicide. To be honest, I hadn’t really learned about it before then. At that time, all I really recalled was a lady somewhere out West that moved to a specific state (which allowed for assisted suicide), gained residency in that state, and then proceeded to move forward with it. That was my extent. I’m not even sure at the time of hearing that story, if I knew that is what it was. Anyway, fast forward a handful of years later, to today, when I stumbled upon the Daily Mail article by James Reinl on assisted suicide and before I even read it, I thought, “Why not do a Legal Tea episode on it?” It’s “out there” and whether someone thinks it’s good, bad, whatever – that should not matter. Today is about education.
And learning. And staying fact-based … so if there are any Legal Tea Listeners that were once like I was (where I really didn’t have a clue “what” it really was … and to be honest, I’m certainly no expert on it today!), at least people will be better-informed when they decide whether it’s an issue they are for or against.
Speaking of being for or against it, as well as how I mentioned earlier that it’s arguably a controversial topic, I found some surveys that were done on this topic and I wanted to share a few results of them. According to a Gallup survey conducted just in 2020, which is the most recent one I could find performed, 74% of US adults said that “Doctors should be allowed to end the life of a patient with an incurable disease by some painless means if the patient and the patient’s family requests it.” Four years prior, in 2016, a similar study was done by Gallup, instead of 74%, it was 69%. So in four years, it gained 5% in approval. A couple of surveys I want to mention… in 2014, a different company did a survey, Harris Poll, and they found that 74% of US adults “agree that individuals who are terminally ill … have the right to choose to end their own life.” And a final survey …. This one was also done in 2014 and it found that 17,000 US Doctors, which represented 28 different specialties, were surveyed by the company, Medscape, and 54% of those Doctors “believed assisted suicide, or medical aid in dying, should be available as an end-of-life option.” Those are all some interesting results … seems Doctors are about 50/50. Pretty split on the issue.
First, let’s get clear what “assisted suicide” even is – that way, we’re on the same page and talking the same language. As I dove deeper into this topic, a lot of terms get thrown around in this arena – so that’s why I want to be clear. I used a 2007 piece from Canadian Medical Association titled, “Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.” Assisted suicide, by itself, is often defined as “suicide undertaken with the aid of another person.” Though, many people tend to group assisted suicide and physician-assisted suicide together, even though technically they’re different. Physician-assisted suicide is quite literally what is sounds like … it’s assisted suicide conducted or performed by a physician. It’s an important clarification because as Wikipedia notes, there are many jurisdictions that have made it illegal to help a person die by suicide, even if there is a physician involved.
Part of the issue with this topic is there’s a little of talk about what is the appropriate term of art to use. As Wikipedia explains, whether someone agrees or disagrees with it plays a big part in what term of art gets used. For example, those that advocate for it, often call the practice “medical aid in dying” or “physician-assisted dying” while those that are against it use “assisted suicide” and “physician-assisted suicide.” Let me be LOUD AND CLEAR – I didn’t know this notion when naming/titling this episode, so please don’t read into how I named this episode. Like I said earlier, I’m really trying hard to stay fact-based in this episode. Heck, I think I named it “Assisted Suicide” because that’s the only way I’ve heard it called!
Anyway, let’s get back to the topic at hand…
In states that do allow for physician-assisted suicides, there is criteria that one must overcome to “qualify.” For example, according to Wikipedia, the individual must have a terminal illness; must be of sound mind; they must make the decision voluntarily; etc. Which that all makes sense, right? If it’s going to be allowed, there are going to have to be restrictions put in place to control it. These physician-assisted suicides are allowed in a handful of countries like: Canada, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, New Zealand, etc. If you’re wondering about the United States, well it’s a little all-over-the-place! That’s because individual states have the authority to regulate assisted suicide – aka, they individual can allow it or prohibit it, and they can do so with different restrictions, parameters, etc.
The quick answer is that a majority of the United States does not allow any type of assisted suicide. Though, there are a handful of jurisdictions that DO allow for some version of it. According to Compassion and Choices, an organization that supports this topic, those states are: California, Colorado, District of Columbia (D.C.), Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Though, do know that most, if not all, of them have faced challenges – both legal recourse through lawsuits and societal pushback. Other states have sure tried to allow for it, but have faced legal challenges, to which they have not made their way to the jurisdiction that allow it. Some of those states are: Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Nevada and Tennessee. Since this podcast is based out of Indiana, I thought this was an interesting tidbit – Just this year, in 2023, House Bill 1011 was introduced by Representative Matt Pierce on this topic to ALLOW it – so we’ll have to keep our eyes peeled on whether this Bill makes its way through the process successfully, or whether it gets shot down and doesn’t get the support.
So yeah, needless to say, our country is all over the place on this issue, on this topic. And in my research, I read so many stories of those that support it, those that don’t support it. Like, the person I referred to at the beginning of this episode, who I had heard moved to a specific state (which allowed for assisted suicide), gained residency in that state, and then proceeded to move forward with it. Well, her name was Brittany Maynard. After being diagnosed with a form of brain cancer, she had surgery to remove the cancer; though, it returned a mere 3 months later in more harsh fashion. At that time, she moved from California to Oregon (at the time, California didn’t allow it) and proceeded to utilize Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Law.” On November 1, 2014, Brittany Maynard died with drugs prescribed by her Doctor. She left a final post online that said, “Goodbye to all my dear friends and family that I love. Today is the day I have chosen to pass away with dignity in the face of my terminal illness, this terrible brain cancer that has taken so much from me … but would have taken so much more.”
Conversely, the Daily Mail article that I recently stumbled upon started with a story about a lady named Alice Bozeman, a mother of four, who in 2009, had a Doctor say she had terminate lung disease that would kill her within six months. She said that her Doctor, sort of, hinted at taking advantage of “assisted suicide” laws in their state of Washington. Surprising to her and her Doctor, Alice proceeded to live nearly twelve more years and ended up dying at the age of 72. Alice’s story is told through her daughter, Anita Cameron, and Anita goes on to share about her own medical journey involving multiple sclerosis. She argues that these assisted-dying rules “make the sick and disabled look indispensable.” So you hear stories about Brittany Maynard and you hear stories about Alice Bozeman (and this Daily Mail article goes into more stories from both “sides”) … and this topic can really get difficult, huh?
As we start to wind this episode up, I think the important thing to know/hear is something I said earlier … that unless something happens federally or through the US Supreme Court, right now, every state has the authority to regulate assisted suicide – aka, they individually can allow it or prohibit it, and they can do so with different restrictions, parameters, etc. So, if it’s an issue that really resonates with you and causes you to passionately advocate for it or not, be sure to get involved and gain a better understanding of your local and state politics to support those that support what “side” you support. I have a feeling this topic will continue to be a bigger and bigger issue and topic … so this will certainly not be the last that you hear of it. Like, here in Indiana, there’s a Bill introduced about it … that just got introduced this year in 2023. And if you don’t understand how laws come to be, I’d encourage you to Youtube the Schoolhouse Rock video, “I’m Just a Bill.” I’m not kidding – it’s a classic, and describes things well. I say that because some may hear me say that this Bill is introduced …. And not understand what that means!
Alrighty, let’s wrap this episode up -- next week’s topic is on estate planning of the rich and the famous – on that episode, we’re going to dive into what’s happened estate-wise following the passing of Stephen “Twitch” Boss, who was the DJ on the Ellen Degeneres Show and involved in so many other things. So, tune on in next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners, to join as I dive into his estate – Talk to you then and stay well!