Disability advocates and medical professionals came out in opposition to a proposal in the Colorado legislature that would legalize assisted suicide, warning that it would further marginalize the disabled and terminally ill.

“For people like me, who have very high medical costs, we are at risk with bills like this. We know our lives are devalued by the medical system,” said Carrie Ann Lucas, a 44-year-old attorney who is disabled.

Speaking before the Colorado House Judiciary Committee Feb. 4, Lucas charged the bill would create a legal, medical and financial environment that is “pushing people towards death.” She spoke on behalf of the groups Not Dead Yet and Disabled Parents’ Rights, which advocate on behalf of persons with disabilities.

Lucas said that some in the medical community devalue her life and that of her loved ones because of their disabilities. For example, doctors tried to encourage her not to go on a ventilator. And when her disabled but otherwise healthy 25-year-old daughter went into the hospital for a routine tooth extraction, she was repeated asked whether she wanted a do-not-resuscitate order.

According to Lucas, some people have had these orders placed on them without their consent or knowledge. She warned of the dangers of mistakes and coercion under the proposed bill.

“There will be mistakes that cannot be undone, because death is final,” she stressed.

If passed into law, the proposed legislation would grant immunity to participants in assisted suicide from civil and criminal liability and from professional discipline. The bill says that actions in accord with the act will not constitute suicide, assisted suicide, mercy killing, homicide or elder abuse.

The legislation would allow a Colorado resident who is terminally ill to request an “aid-in-dying” prescription from his or her attending doctor in order “to hasten the individual’s death.” The doctor may write the prescription if at least two health care providers say the individual is capable of making an informed decision.

The House bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Lois Court and Joann Ginal. It passed out of the Democrat-controlled House Committee on Feb. 4 by a party-line vote of 6-5. The bill could become law if it is passes the House, the State Senate, and is signed into law by the governor.

Supporters of the bill argued that it would provide an additional option for the terminally ill, without legalizing euthanasia.

Rep. Court said the bill was about “patient-centered decision-making at the end of life” to address physical and psychological discomfort for the terminally ill.

Roland Halpern, speaking to the committee on behalf of assisted suicide advocacy group Compassion & Choices, claimed stories of abuse were unfounded. He said few people were using the law in states where the practice is legal. He said those who choose assisted suicide are not suicidal; rather, they want to live, but can’t.

Other witnesses, however, voiced grave concerns with the bill.

Lucas warned of one cancer patient in Oregon, Barbara Wagner, who was denied a cancer treatment under her Medicaid health plan. The plan instead offered her two options: palliative care or assisted suicide.

According to Lucas, the majority of Oregon assisted suicide deaths were not due to pain but because of fear of disability.

She also said the bill’s purported safeguards are nullified by the bill’s immunity clause for those operating in “good faith.” She said this means there is no way to counter problems.

Skip Morgan, a practicing probate proceedings attorney from Colorado Springs, charged that the bill’s alleged safeguards are “unworkable, unknowable and unenforceable.”

He pointed to the process of securing the required witnesses under the bill. “There is no requirement for witnesses to have knowledge of the patient,” he said.

Also of concern is the fact that “a witness can be an interested witness, including an heir,” Morgan said. He warned of cases where overreaching heirs might pressure a person to take the prescription.

Furthermore, the bill has no requirement for record-keeping, he warned. “You will not be able to tell if suicides increase,” he said.

Washington state attorney Margaret Dore, with the group Choice Illusion, also opposed the bill, saying there is a “complete lack of oversight” for those who die under it. The drugs are water- and alcohol-soluble, which means they can be provided to people who do not intend to take them. And the bill would require coroners to name the terminal illness — not the lethal drug — as the cause of death, essentially “falsifying” the death certificate.

She also recounted the story of a friend who had what she believed to be a terminal diagnosis. Her doctor persuaded her not to pursue assisted suicide. The woman is still alive 15 years later.

“If she’d gone to a different doctor, she’d probably be dead,” Dore said.

In January, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver released a video warning that the Colorado bill would put the vulnerable at risk and “incentivize doctors to prescribe death.”

“The moral aspects of this debate are very clear: God has taught us not to kill. And that includes killing ourselves,” he said. Photo credit: isak55 via www.shutterstock.com