By: Aimee Harvey

The Delaware House Health and Human Development Committee discussed HB140 on Wednesday, a bill that would legalize physician-assisted death for terminally ill individuals.

If passed, Delaware would join the eleven other jurisdictions that already authorize physician-assisted death. While each state has their own unique laws concerning the practice, they all share the same basic qualifications: a person must be terminally ill and within six months of a natural death to utilize physician-assisted death.

Proponents of physician-assisted death describe the practice as a way to reduce suffering and help patients regain a sense of control or sense of self at the end of their life. Though methods vary, physician-assisted death typically involves a physician providing a prescription for a lethal dose of medication to a terminally ill patient who has decided to end their life. The patient then administers the medication to themselves, allowing them to end their life painlessly.

The right-to-die movement first gained notoriety in the late 1970s, largely due to a book by Derek Humphry entitled “Jean’s Way.” The book discussed Humphry’s own experience in helping his wife, Jean, take her own life after her diagnosis with terminal cancer. The book’s popularity ultimately led to Humphry founding the Hemlock Society in 1980, a group that sought to aid terminally ill individuals in ending their lives peacefully. The Hemlock Society, alongside groups such as Compassion in Dying, also played an active role in pushing for legislation legalizing physician-assisted death.

However, despite growing support for “death with dignity” legislation, the right-to-die remains a polarizing issue. Supporters of the movement believe the practice should be legalized throughout the country, with more radical supporters arguing that physician-assisted death should be an option for those suffering from mental illness, not just the terminally ill. Right-to-die activists like the Final Exit Network have even taken matters into their own hands by assisting individuals in ending their lives, even in states where it is not yet legalized.

On the other hand, some critics liken physician-assisted death to euthanizing an animal, with several organizations raising valid concerns over discrimination and ethical issues. Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group, opposes legalizing physician-assisted suicide on the grounds that it is ableist. The group argues that because terminally ill patients are often also individuals with disabilities, offering death as a “treatment” may result in patients foregoing other options such as therapy or home care services that could improve their quality of life. Other disability activists argue that due to the lack of resources and affordable healthcare, individuals with terminal illnesses may feel as if they have no other options besides physician-assisted death. The American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics also takes a strong stance against physician-assisted death, stating that it is, “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.”

In short: the right-to-die movement is complicated. Though individuals suffering from terminal illness deserve the right to make choices regarding their own lives, physician involvement undoubtedly muddies the waters. It prompts questions over whether this is truly ethical, whether the patient was given a chance to fully explore their other options, and whether the choice to die is due to a lack of resources. Per Oregon’s 2020 Death with Dignity Act Report, 6.1% of individuals who utilized physician-assisted suicide cited “financial implications of treatment” as one of the reasons for ending their life. While this percentage may seem small, it still begs the question: are our societal failings forcing their hand?

Aimee Harvey graduated from the University of Arizona with a B.S. in Public Health and a minor in Spanish. She is currently a 3L with plans to work in indigent defense, family law, or estate planning. Within the topic of social justice, her interests include LGBTQ+ issues and reforming criminal justice, immigration, and tax systems.