Robert Ehlert

Idaho steadfast against assisted suicide amid Western sea change

Robert Ehlert
Robert Ehlert

Assisted suicide? Assisted death? End of life options? Death with dignity? The terminology is becoming more political and polarized. But if you look at sheer numbers, it is gaining some momentum, especially in the West.

As of Thursday, the nearly 39 million residents of California now have the option to consider seeking a lethal prescription from a doctor if they are at least 18 and find themselves of sound mind, with a diagnosis of six months or less to live, and physically able to take the prescription themselves without help from anybody.

California joins Oregon and Washington — which already have similar legislation — and completes the West Coast acceptance of an option to end one’s own life. Montana essentially permits physician-assisted death by recognizing a statutory “consent” defense for anyone aiding in a suicide. Things are unclear in Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

Idaho’s neighbor to the north, Canada, may soon join the ranks as well. According to a New York Times story in April, the Justin Trudeau administration has introduced legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide for Canadians with a “serious and incurable illness” that has brought them “enduring physical or psychological suffering.”

That legislation would extend the option only to citizens and residents who are “eligible to participate in the national health care system, an effort to prevent a surge in medical tourism among the dying from other countries.”

Geographically, that leaves Idaho as an island of contrast in a sea of societal change. Though it has lots of company in the East — 37 other states criminalize the assisted suicide process — there already are documented cases of people crossing borders and doing what is necessary to relocate and legally hasten their deaths.

Nothing has changed about assisted suicide laws recently in Idaho. It is still illegal for anyone to participate in such an act in the Gem State, and constitutes a felony. Five years ago Idaho enacted legislation that prohibits assisting another person in committing or attempting to commit suicide.

Who knows how long this legislative resistance will last in Idaho and the rest of the country, but I think it is fair to say society is exploring a new path. We find ourselves living in a time when medical advances result in longer life — but perhaps not the quality we desire. The older we get, the more it costs to keep us here.

Like me, you must know people whose final months and days were not pleasant. I can think of friends, relatives and co-workers who succumbed to ALS, fatal brain tumors and various forms of cancer, for whom death came along with the most excruciating installment plan.

Though I can understand the temptation to speed up the process, I have my concerns and don’t speak for anybody else. When I think about such an irreversible decision — such as asking for a prescription to end my life — I tend to stop and pause.

How can anybody say how they feel about “assisted death” until confronted with it in a personal way?

I know nobody gets out of this life alive. I know end-of-life issues are profound and can be filled with long and painful conditions. But I also know there are many options besides taking a lethal prescription. As I contemplate this today in my present state of health, I can tell you that I may die before I ever ask somebody to help me get the job done.

In the meantime, I recommend you read Ellen Goodman’s column at this link. I hope it stimulates conversation from the halls of government right down to the living rooms where we can have honest, face-to-face discussions about how we want to live at the end.