House Judiciary Committee hears bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide


PROVIDENCE — On Thursday, February 15, the House Judiciary Committee met to discuss HB 7100, also known as the Lila Manfield Sapinsley Compassionate Care Act.
Introduced by Rep. Edith Ajello (D - District 1, Providence), the bill would seek to legalize physician-assisted suicide, stating that a “physician shall not be subject to any civil or criminal liability or professional disciplinary action if the physician prescribes to a patient with a terminal condition medication to be self-administered for the purpose of hastening the patient’s death.”
According to the bill, doctors cannot directly administer life-ending substances to patients but may prescribe them to terminally ill patients who ask for them. The bill further specifies a series of other regulations surrounding physician-assisted suicide: terminally ill patients – which the bill defines as patients with an incurable medical condition likely to lead to death within the next 6 months – must make two oral requests to the doctor together with a written request in the presence of two or more witnesses, at least one of whom is not an interested party (a spouse, family member, or heir to the patient, the doctor, or owner or operator of the hospital). Further, the life-ending substances must be administered by the patient himself.
Rep. Ajello, when presenting her bill before the committee, framed the intention behind the bill in terms of a desire to end the suffering of the terminally ill and give people greater personal autonomy. Yet, some present questioned whether the effects of the bill ended with the individual patient, claiming that the bill had broader negative effects.
Melanie van Zant, a local child psychologist, noted that much of the testimony in favor of the bill was emotionally driven, and thus represents “mak[ing] legislative decisions…on emotion” and a failure to “think through how is this projected into the future, how is this projected onto humanity, onto children, onto all of us.” Van Zant went on to assert that the primary cultural impact of this bill is the legitimizing of the belief that suicide is a morally legitimate response to the difficulties of life, something which disproportionately impacts the youth.
Van Zant’s testimony was followed by that of Dr. Timothy Flanigan, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at Brown Medical School. Dr. Flanigan noted that the best way to help those approaching death is one rooted in palliative care, in which medical professionals seek to alleviate suffering and provide emotional support. Dr. Flanigan further noted that it is easy to choose death when faced with immense suffering, something which inevitably leads to abuses whenever physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia are allowed.
“Many individuals will choose that route [i.e., physician-assisted suicide] due to the overwhelming nature of end of life, and that will be very, very destructive,” Flanigan said. “That’s why palliative medicine is so effective and so important, and that’s what needs our support.”
Many claimed that not only does the proposed bill have potentially destructive implications, but it represents a certain discrepancy in the priorities of the General Assembly.
“Having experienced the tremendous pain and loss of a family member who committed suicide I am perplexed why the General Assembly which is promoting bills to make state bridges more secure for suicide prevention and those that deal with the high rate of suicide among R.I. military veterans would seek to legalize assisted suicide,” said Father Bernard A. Healey, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference, to the Rhode Island Catholic. “Suicide is by its very nature always tragic and when someone assists with a suicide they are generally charged with a crime.”
“The proposed bill is a pro-suicide bill that fails to serve the common good of Rhode Islanders especially the most vulnerable and it should be stopped in its tracks…”
“Respect for life does not demand that we attempt to prolong life by using medical treatments that are ineffective or unduly burdensome. … Instead, it demands that we respect life as a gift by not actively seeking an artificial means to end it” Father Healey said in his written testimony. “For Christians, other religious believers, and many people of goodwill, dying is not an evil to avoid at all costs. It is a step in a journey that continues in the next life with God. But even those without faith can recognize the intrinsic value of human life. They can see that suffering persons need solidarity and support more than a loaded syringe and an easy exit; they need their dignity affirmed by being loved and encouraged to hope…”
Some even questioned the manner in which the bill was justified, asserting that attempts to use arguments from bodily autonomy are misguided when used in defense of the proposed legislation.
“If it were about freedom, we would allow teenagers to commit suicide when they became very depressed, or others who aren’t terminally ill. But we make a distinction. We say that some lives are worth living, and others aren’t,” said Dr. Giuseppi Butera, an associate professor of philosophy at Providence College.
“It’s immoral,” Dr. Butera said with reference to the bill. “The prohibition against the intentional killing of innocent human life is absolute, or it doesn’t exist. Not everything that can be done should be done.”
Barth Bracy, the Director of the Rhode Island Right to Life, echoed these concerns in an interview with the Rhode Island Catholic, claiming that opposition to this bill among many proponents of the pro-life movement is born out of a commitment to defending life more generally.
“The pro-life movement understood from the beginning that attacks on the lives of helpless preborn children would eventually lead to attacks on other vulnerable human beings,” Bracy said. “And this is what we see in current efforts to legalize and expand assisted suicide and other forms of euthanasia. We must redouble our efforts to assert and defend [the] inviolable and unalienable right to life of every human being, in virtue of their humanity rather than some arbitrary and capricious standard.”
“Some legislators are sincerely ignorant while others are, quite honestly, committed to a perverse and evil agenda,” Bracy continued, going on to state that in order to finally defeat such measures once and for all, citizens need to make their voices heard.
“State and local elected officials need to see your face and hear your voice, not only when they are deliberating such measures, but also during the elections, especially in the primary elections.”
The bill was held for further study.