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Four states liberalize assisted-suicide laws in 2023


NASHVILLE (BP) – No additional states have legalized assisted suicide so far this year, but some have liberalized their laws regulating the deadly practice in the face of opposition by pro-life advocates.

Vermont and Oregon became the first states to drop the requirement that people who receive a lethal prescription must be citizens of the state, thereby sanctioning what has been described as “suicide tourism.” Washington and Hawaii expanded those eligible to prescribe a fatal dose from physicians to other health-care professionals.

Nevada, meanwhile, narrowly averted becoming the 11th state to approve of assisted suicide when Gov. Joe Lombardo vetoed in June a legislative measure that would have permitted it. His veto came after leaders of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and the Nevada Baptist Convention joined other assisted-suicide foes in a letter urging Lombardo to reject the bill.

Assisted suicide involves the prescription by a medical professional of a drug a patient administers in taking his or her own life. In euthanasia, a medical provider acts directly to take a patient’s life, typically by lethal injection. Euthanasia is illegal in all states.

The assisted-suicide movement has expanded since Oregon became the first state to legalize the practice in 1997. Assisted suicide is also in effect in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.

Pro-life leaders again called for public policies that honor human dignity rather than help people commit suicide.

“Life is precious from conception to natural death,” ERLC Vice President and Chief of Staff Miles Mullin told Baptist Press. “It is a travesty that some political leaders think that making suicide easier and more accessible is an acceptable answer to the pain and suffering of their citizens.

“It is the state’s job to protect life, not encourage taking it,” he said in written comments. “Politicians should do the hard work of coming up with better solutions that will support life.”

Mullin said the ERLC “will stand for this Christian ethic, work to cultivate a culture of life and stand against a culture of death that encourages vulnerable, suffering people to seek their own death.” 

Medical care and Christian ministry – not assisted suicide – should be offered to the terminally ill and suffering, said C. Ben Mitchell, an ERLC research fellow and long-time Southern Baptist and evangelical bioethicist.

“Morally speaking, physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are either forms of medical abandonment or medical malpractice, or both,” he said in written remarks for BP. “Human medicine deserving of the name requires that medical professionals, family and the community members provide the best comfort and palliative care possible until the end of natural life.

“Historically, Christians have been present at the bedside of the dying — pioneers of the hospital movement, hospice and palliative care,” Mitchell said. “Loving God and loving one’s neighbor requires compassion, not lethal drugs.

“We must not abandon the dying to the medical-social technocrats. There’s never been a more important time and place for the church to be the church than in the care of the dying.”

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has expressed opposition to assisted suicide in annual resolutions dating back more 30 years. Messengers to the 2018 SBC meeting approved a resolution that affirmed “the full dignity of every human being, whether or not any political, legal, or medical authority considers a human being possessive of ‘viable’ life regardless of cognitive or physical disability, and denounce[d] every act that would wrongly limit the life of any human at any stage or state of life.”

In actions this year by states that already had legalized assisted suicide, according to a July 5 report by Americans United for Life (AUL):

  • Vermont broke a barrier in May by becoming the first state to eliminate its residency requirement for people seeking a lethal prescription. The state permits telemedicine for assisted suicide, which means those who live outside Vermont can receive a fatal dose without ever seeing a doctor in person, wrote Tate Thielfoldt, an AUL legal fellow.
  • Oregon followed Vermont’s example by removing its residency requirement July 13, when Gov. Tina Kotek signed the legislation.
  • Washington enacted in April a measure that enables such “qualified medical providers” as physician assistants and advanced registered nurse practitioners, instead of only doctors, to prescribe deadly drugs. The state also reduced the period of reflection after a person’s request for the prescription from 15 days to seven.
  • Hawaii approved in June a law that permits advanced registered nurses to prescribe lethal prescriptions and shortens the reflection period from 20 days to five.

Bills to legalize assisted suicide, which typically permit a lethal dose to those with a terminal illness near the end of life, gained introduction in several states this year but failed or have yet to gain passage. Fifteen states remain in regular or special session for 2023.

As an outgrowth of the issue of human dignity, foes of assisted suicide have pointed to a variety of reasons for objecting to its legalization. These include the potential for abuse, the frequent failure to provide counseling for those suffering depression, reports of insurance coverage for the lethal practice instead of for health care and the opposition of disability advocates.

The pro-life movement faces a “growing battle” regarding assisted suicide, Thielfoldt said.

“No amount of ‘safeguards’ a state imposes in its assisted suicide laws will ever be sufficient to protect vulnerable patients from coercion and abuse at the hands of medical professionals,” he wrote. “All life should be protected in law, regardless of someone’s age, disability, health status, or income.”