Monday, March 4, 2024

Assisted suicide causes pain and suffering for family members.

By Dr Jacqueline Abernathy Ph.D., MSSW

Jacqueline Abernathy
On Thursday, February 29, the Colorado State Assembly Senate Health & Human Services Committee voted in a rare bi-partisan 7-1 approval for assisted suicide expansion Bill SB 068. The committee has a 6 to 3 Democrat majority, so passage was sadly expected since this issue settled down party lines in recent years, but this was not a party-line vote but a nearly unanimous endorsement of an issue so contemptuous, that it took over two and a half hours of alternating two-minute testimonies to get through all the registered witnesses, myself included. Across my twenty-plus years of activism and 12 years of post-doctoral academic scholarship on end-of-life laws in the United States, I have testified in many capitols, sometimes waiting to conclude hearings lasting over ten hours. This hearing marked two milestones for me: my first time to testify remotely against assisted suicide and my first experience as a witness in a state where it was already legal. The latter was eye-opening. I heard new arguments from those in favor of easing access to self-destruct that gave me new insight into problems this practice creates that I never before considered, namely the emotional trauma of waiting for the means to kill yourself and the pain that knowing this self-imposed, unnecessary act will cause.

The testimony I heard was sobering and the lack of public engagement was a disconcerting sign of how desperately we must fight back on assisted suicide. As always, the case in favor of assisting a suicide was purely anecdotal, devastating accounts of sick and scared people who see suicide as the only way out of their circumstances, whereas my testimony and other opponents were pragmatic points of concern for the vulnerable and appeals to refuse violence as a substitute for real medical care and true compassion. Witnesses in opposition pointed out the dangers of SB 068, a bill that would strip the requirement that only physicians can prescribe lethal drugs, and reduce the waiting period from two weeks to just two days. Furthermore the bill would allow suicide tourists to obtain the lethal poison after just 48 hours to reflect upon this ultimate, irreversible decision: it would allow non-Coloradans to visit for the purpose of suicide and to subvert the laws in their home states, effectively creating a market large enough to sustain specialty suicide clinics that would profit off desperate, terrified people trading their money for a deadly dose of barbiturates from a total stranger with an ideological and financial stake in enabling many people to destroy themselves as possible. 


The talking points suggested that loosening the assisted suicide provisions was rooted in improving flaws in the law Coloradans and would have some face validity if the bill did not expand eligibility to non-residents. But as I said in my testimony, the amendments clearly accommodated out-of-state visitors so adding these individuals to the bill makes it appear that these changes are meant to cater to them, and residents are an afterthought who get to share the supposed benefits of quicker, easier access to assisted suicide. Stories from bill supporters were, as always, deeply heartbreaking and disturbing. It aches my heart to hear what people endure and wish so much that it didn’t wrongly appear that opposing assisted suicide means that we do not equally wish to see an end to their pain.


Most often assisted suicide is not about pain, but ableism when people can no longer enjoy life as much due to their condition which implies that life is only valuable for the physically able-bodied. There is also the fear of what dying from an underlying condition will entail vs. a certainty when choosing the means to kill. The reduction from fourteen days to 48 hours before a patient could take their own life was a key theme among witnesses who concurred that this wait was emotionally agonizing for those who were fearful that they might die naturally during the interim or the impending knowledge that they would be dead immediately once the medication was dispensed.


It was one such particular story that struck me the most deeply. A bereaved sister named Lindsay Menough recalled losing her brother, Eric Carlson, to assisted suicide in 2020. She testified in his honor that self-violence was his preferred alternative to dying naturally from brain cancer, not because he was in pain but because he “could no longer live independently and would die naturally within 6 months.” 


I also lost my sibling to the same underlying condition Mr. Carlson faced. Elizabeth Harvey died of cancer in 2022, from a tumor that spread to her brain. I could relate to the pain in this woman’s voice and the agony associated with watching a sibling battle such a merciless malady, but what hurts me the most is how different our experiences were in the same circumstance because legal assisted suicide enabled a torment I couldn’t imagine and thanks to my sister’s strong convictions against violence, an act she would have never subjected us to even if it has been a legal option. Menough spoke favorably of assisted suicide like it was a mercy but spoke of how cruel it is to know when someone who does not have to die yet still puts an unnecessary doomsday clock counting down the time they have left with you rather than treasuring whatever time they are given. She said, “Imagine your loved one would die on a particular day. Imagine that those days counting down would be like simply waiting, knowing the awful inevitable end was coming.” I can’t imagine because it is not meant to be this way. I know what it is like not knowing when that day would be when my sister would die much like I don’t know when anyone’s time will end, but with my sister, I knew that the day would soon come when Beth could no longer speak to me and would soon after, take her last breath. 


My experience was nothing like what this poor woman described while waiting for her brother to die by assisted suicide, impatiently awaiting the first available chance to end his life once he could do so with the assistance of “medication.” Menough explained, “The seventeen days from when Eric made a decision until the day he finally passed away were excruciating for Eric, for me, and for our entire family. The clock ticked, the days changed and with every passing second my brother grew more and more frustrated because he was simply there, able-bodied, of a sound mind, just waiting to die.” 


Able-bodied, of a sound mind is very much alive and able to live life to the fullest, the way my sister actually did until that life was over. Menough stated, “Eric lived a full life up until his last breath.” as If choosing to take his last breath as soon as possible didn’t throw that full life away, and recounts that he enjoyed aspects of being alive shortly before taking poison to die months ahead of schedule. “An hour before he started the process, we were walking in his woods. He enjoyed his favorite cocktail in front of the fireplace while listening to the Rolling Stones with the people he loved most.” Near the end, I was grieved by knowing time was limited with my sister to take walks and listen to music together. I knew eventually she would need heavy pain control and be mostly sedated and that even before she ultimately died, I would lose her because I would never be able to talk to her again, but I was comforted in that my sister didn’t arbitrarily cut that time short on purpose. 


Menough lost her brother and the time she should have had, which can only further complicate the same grief from the same kind of loss that I too endured. She concluded as if assisted suicide preserved the value of Erik’s life rather than taking that value away completely, stating, “He never lost any part of himself in the process of battling brain cancer.” I am glad she thinks this is so, but in taking his life, I think he truly lost all of himself while also taking himself from those who loved him. He let suicide steal months of fireside cocktails and nature walks. 


My sister never let cancer steal anything more from her or any of those she loved to the extent she was able to fight back. I got to have every conversation with her and enjoy every single moment of her company that she had left before she eventually fell into a coma and passed away peacefully. Had she taken a poison cocktail to become comatose months early while waiting for the poisons to kill her, she would have let her disease take more from her than it had to. 


This bereaved sister was lobbying to cut the time to even less before people could further limit their lives that were already cut short by a terminal disease. The torment of knowing when the last day would be was an additional and unnecessary trauma caused by assisted suicide. She wanted to shorten this torment not realizing that the torment should not exist and nor should letting a terminal diagnosis coerce you into just throwing away what precious life you have left. Our experiences prove that assisted suicide does not make loss easier, only harder. It was not until I heard stories like this that I came to understand just how much assisted suicide steals from those in dire circumstances. Once able to destroy lives, assisted suicide laws only grow into bills like SB 068 where the victims cry for it to steal even more from those already devastated by terminal illness. Although my fellow witnesses like Menough were fighting in honor of her late brother to only increase pain like hers, she is also a victim of pain I was spared by a sister who was committed to loving us with all the time she had left. We need to convey to those hurt by assisted suicide that the answer is not to make it easier to endure added unnecessary pain, but not to enable such pain at all.


I encourage more life advocates to turn out against the companion bill in the House committee once announced and for Colorado residents to make their values known to their representatives. Even as a non-Coloradan, I intend to continue fighting for the vulnerable people that inspired me to testify like I always have, but now, I will do it also for those hurt by assisted suicide who will, unfortunately, be testifying on the opposite side without knowing that there is a better way to face terminal illness than with elective violence. 


I will do so, not just in honor of my late sister but for other bereaved siblings like myself and more so, for victims like Menough. Stories like hers that I heard at this hearing and the inevitable added damage detailed in my testimony only prove how necessary it is for us to fight back against bills like SB 068 that only make an already bad law somehow, far worse. I hope you will join me as we continue to fight assisted suicide not just in Colorado, but everywhere it threatens human life.  


KathleenLundquist said...

Is the Court still taking written testimony? Can you provide a link to how/where to submit testimony on the Colorado legislature website? Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Abernathy,
Thank you so much for defending life. Your expertise will help educate those who have not understood what assisted suicide can do not only to those who die but to their family and friends. In November of 2017, I myself basically died from a rare virus that gave me aseptic meningoencephilitis. Half of the 17 people in Duluth, MN who got it died. My doctors worked hard to save me. After two weeks in a coma, I regained myself enough to learn to walk, talk, add, etc. In two months, I made a 100% recovery. I now wonder, if I had lived in Oregon or Colorado, would doctors have worked as hard to heal me? I am happy to meet my newest grandchildren and thank God everyday to live in Minnesota where doctors still practice the Hippocratic Oath.
Jill Beyer