Every State Should Pass a Medical Aid-in-Dying Law

Just two months apart, the governors of Maine and New Jersey signed laws ensuring that terminally ill adults in their states would no longer have to suffer needlessly at life’s inevitable end.

Similar to bills introduced in 17 other states this year, the Maine and New Jersey laws will allow a mentally capable, terminally ill adult with six months or less to live to have the option to request a doctor’s prescription for medication that they can decide to take to die gently in their sleep if their suffering becomes unbearable. This option allows a terminally person to avoid the very worst, very last part of the dying process.

National polling shows more than seven out of 10 Americans (72 percent) support medical aid in dying with majority support across every demographic, political and religious spectrum. This compassionate option is now available to nearly 70 million adults in nine states and Washington, DC. And lawmakers are beginning to respond to their constituents demands for this peaceful option.

It took 20 years to authorize medical aid in dying in the first four states (Oregon in 1994, Washington in 2008, Montana in 2009, and Vermont in 2013), but only five years to authorize it in the last six jurisdictions (California in 2015, Colorado in 2016, Washington, D.C. in 2017, Hawai‘i in 2018, and New Jersey and Maine in 2019).

Medical aid-in-dying laws include more than a dozen regulatory requirements for a dying person to obtain the prescription. Two doctors must certify that the patient is mentally capable, terminally ill with a prognosis of six months or less to live, is able to self-ingest the medication and is not being coerced. There are witness forms, waiting periods and reporting requirements. And the patient is in charge of the process from start to finish: the patient must make the request, and ultimately ingest the medication. 

Current medical aid-in-dying laws protect patients. In a combined 40 years of experience across 8 jurisdictions, there has not been a single documented incidence of abuse or coercion.

Although the data and evidence clearly demonstrates that medical aid-in-dying laws protect patients, the trend within state houses is to attempt to add additional “safeguards” to address every possible way a nefarious doctor or family member could prematurely end a vulnerable person’s life. While this approach is well-intentioned, it is unnecessary, duplicative and ill advised.

Unnecessary because the data clearly demonstrates that medical aid-in-dying laws, with their current safeguards, protect patients. Duplicative because the practice of medicine is already highly regulated, with strict licensing laws designed to weed out or convict nefarious doctors. And ill advised because a dying person with limited time to live will never be able to obtain the prescription if we add more steps on top of the already cumbersome 12-step process outlined in existing medical aid-in-dying laws. If we hamstring doctors by legislating for hypothetical situations, they will be unable to either save lives or provide patients with a more peaceful death. A dying person needs end-of-life care policies that prioritize compassion over unnecessary government red tape and roadblocks.

It is heartbreaking to watch a dying person being robbed of this compassionate option year after year because false assumptions are guiding our policymaking. Medical aid-in-dying laws protect dying patients while providing them with a necessary and compassionate end-of-life care option. Only the dying person, in consultation with their loved ones and doctor, knows how much suffering is too much to bear. I urge the lawmakers in every state to let the evidence and data guide policy making and authorize this compassionate option without further delay.