By Shaina Salman, Elder Law Clinic Student, Fall 2015
In 2014, Time Magazine reported that five states currently have death with dignity laws. Those states—Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana—each have a variation of a statute or legal precedent that permits euthanasia. Essentially, terminally ill patients, in consultation with their doctors, can request a prescription for doses of lethal medications that will allow them to end their own lives. Proponents of the law argue that assisted suicide is a practice that places the decision of dying within the hands of the patient, giving them autonomy to decide on their own terms when and how they want to die. However, opponents argue fiercely that patients might be pressured to take their own lives by family members and others who wish to save money or end the burden of caring for someone with a debilitating illness. Time Magazines’ data shows that the average age of those dying from taking assisted suicide medications is 71 years old in Oregon. This demonstrates that the majority of those taking the drugs are the elderly. Since 1998, the state reports that 1, 173 people have had assisted suicide prescriptions written while 752 of that number actually died from taking the medications.
The sheer number of cases alone may not be very alarming, but the median age of those who are dying from the drug should be. The Oregon Stateman Journal published an article in 2014 that cited a 10% increase in allegations for elder abuse While the study does not distinguish between financial and physical abuse, advocates for the elderly are sure that this is no coincidence. A columnist for the New York Times points out a gaping hole in the law. “Neither [Washington’s or Oregon’s] act requires witnesses at the death. Without disinterested witnesses, the opportunity is created for an heir, or someone else who will benefit from the patient’s death, to administer the lethal dose to the patient without his consent. Even if he struggled, who would know?”
The narrative looks like this: an elderly patient is diagnosed with a terminal disease. Out of fear of losing autonomy or being a burden, the patient asks his doctor to prescribe him a lethal drug that will allow him to die when he is ready. The fear is that this patient, may change his mind and become a victim of an interested party forcing the pill down the throat of the patient to hasten death and attain his inheritance. This narrative is not so far-fetched as proponents suggest. Elder abuse is a prevalent issue in this country. The National Center on Elder Abuse reports an upward trend in the problem with anywhere from 7.6-10% of the elder population being abused. These numbers indicate that this may become a larger issue in the future.
With the growing size of the elder population, and the growing popularity of assisted suicide laws, legislators should be concerned with the consequences of such laws for this vulnerable segment of the population. Ultimately, assisted suicide and elder abuse are not –so-strange bedfellows because one appears to certainly be implicating the other. As others have said, assisted suicide appears to be ripe for elder abuse. The laws make the tools for abuse much more readily available and leave the elder much more at risk. Ultimately, with the growing popularity of these laws nationwide (this month alone, California’s governor signed a bill into law allowing for assisted suicide), proponents and naysayers should both be looking at this issue through the lens of the most vulnerable and taking affirmative steps to protect the elderly.