For this disability advocate, Colo. assisted suicide measure still not safe

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Voters in Colorado will decide whether to legalize assisted suicide in their state in November, after a campaign gathered enough signatures to put the proposal on the ballot, Proposition 106.

If passed, the measure known as the Colorado End-of-Life Options Act would allow for someone with a terminal illness to request a lethal prescription from their physician. The person must be at least 18 years old, deemed mentally competent, and have a diagnosis from two physicians of six months or fewer to live. The measure also requires that they self-administer the drug, called secobarbital, which is also used for lethal injections in some states.

But these safeguards are not enough to keep Coloradans safe from coercion and error, argues Carri Ann Lucas, an attorney and board member for Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group that advocates against assisted suicide measures.

"Nobody wants themselves or their family members to suffer, but they haven't thought through all of the policy implications of a decision like this, and passing a measure like this," Lucas said.

"I think Compassion and Choices is just trying to play on the ignorance of voters and count on the ignorance of voters," she added. "If people are educated about this proposal, they will not support it."

The new initiative, largely pushed for by Compassion and Choices, counts on voter ignorance about safeguards and legal concerns surrounding physician assisted suicide in order to pass, Lucas said. It comes after two assisted suicide measures – one initiated in the Senate and one in the House – failed to make it to a floor vote in the state legislature. Last year, the Colorado legislature rejected a similar bill, citing concerns about the lack of safeguards in place.

One of the big issues with the newest proposal, Lucas said, is that it does not require a physician or medical professional to be present at the time of the drug's administration, meaning that there is a concerning margin for error and no one to help if something goes wrong.

"There's nothing stopping someone from abusing an elder or family member by flipping these medications into their applesauce and feeding them to the individual," she said. "But also there's no assurance that these drugs will work as intended, and nobody's there to ensure that people are safe at the time that they're administered, that there aren't any adverse effects that need to be treated at the same time."

"These are the same types of drugs that are used for lethal injection and we know how that can go awry at times, so that's certainly a concern," she added.

Another concern is the conflict of interest in the witnesses of the decision to seek assisted suicide, Lucas said. Under the proposed initiative, a friend or family member would be able to legally witness a loved one's decision to seek assisted suicide.

"As an attorney, I can't have an interested party witness a will, so we're going to now let an interested party help sign a request to seek a lethal prescription?" Lucas asked.

"There aren't safeguards to ensure … that family members aren't coercing people into seeking assisted suicide, so somebody who's an heir to an estate can take their loved one to a doctor's office and witness their request, even though they stand to inherit from the person if they follow through on that request," she added.

Additionally, the supposed safeguard about mental competency is another concern, Lucas said. In the language of the proposal as it stands, individuals seeking assisted suicide are only give a psychological evaluation if the doctor deems it necessary – meaning many people with depression or other mental health problems could slip through the cracks, and be killed instead of treated. 

The debate surrounding the issue has been heated, and has many news outlets in Colorado grappling with the semantics of it all, debating whether to continue calling the taking of lethal prescriptions "assisted suicide" or "medical aid in dying" – which is used by groups like Compassion and Choices, which advocates for legalized assisted suicide.

Several disability groups in Colorado have joined forces with each other as well as groups of physicians and faith-based groups to fight assisted suicide legislation in the past two years. The disability rights groups argue that assisted suicide discriminates against the disabled as well as people with a low income, because it is cheaper for insurance companies to pay for someone's death than to pay for lifelong medical care.

In Oregon, the first state to legalize assisted suicide, there have been cases of cancer patients who are denied chemotherapy treatment, but instead are offered lethal prescriptions.

The groups have also argued that doctors can make mistakes when diagnosing terminal illnesses – a person who is given six months to live may outlive their diagnosis, sometimes by many years.

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As with past assisted suicide legislation, the problem with the Colorado End-of-Life Options Act is that there is too wide a margin for error, Lucas said.

"Frankly, no safeguards have been proposed that would alleviate our concerns."

This article was originally published on CNA Aug. 31, 2016.

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