In our society, the act of dying is treated respectfully as a private affair. This is because it is an emotionally difficult process for the living and often a painful one for the dying. As all of us can or will attest, dealing with death is difficult and in my own case the loss of my brother to a terminal illness brought these issues home.
Last year, California became involved in the very public death of a young woman diagnosed with a terminal disease. Brittany Maynard made everyone who would listen aware of her choice to relocate to Oregon which allowed her to experience what she called the “choice of a gentle death.”
My brother took the opposite approach. Given the terminal diagnosis, he quietly chose not to undergo prolonged treatment and made the most of the time left to enjoy the warmth and company of friends and family.
Since Brittany’s death, legislators from several states capitalized on the emotional environment, including politicians in California who have introduced SB 128, known as the “End of Life Option Act.” This compassionate sounding act is modeled after procedures for people who choose to commit suicide that was adopted in Oregon.
Setting aside the religious aspects of this new act, let’s take a look at the philosophical quandaries enactment of such a law might produce. Suicide is certainly nothing new in the history of mankind, and the attempt to pass this law isn’t new in California either, having been tried twice before each ending in failure.
One group in strong opposition to this type of law has been doctors, who believe such laws are inconsistent with their calling to provide healing, in accordance with the Hippocratic Oath.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, that oath, written approximately 2,400 year ago states in part, “…I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel…” and there is good reason for physicians taking this oath to maintain their pledge. The ending phrase of this commitment states, “While I continue to keep this Oath unviolated, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and the practice of the art, respected by all men, in all times! But should I trespass and violate this Oath, may the reverse be my lot!”
Typically, most doctors also refuse to participate in the death penalty process because it would violate the basic tenants of their oath to do no harm.
The second quandary involves the discussion of the death penalty, and whether “lethal injection” procedures are considered “cruel and unusual punishment.” Of course, the rush to pass a new “End of Life Option” law also brings a philosophical dilemma for some—namely, the opponents of the death penalty. Those opponents undertook a campaign to convince the Danish multinational company, Lundbeck, to stop the sale of pentobarbital, which it manufactures, to states that incorporate it as one of three drugs used in execution protocols.
In an opinion piece printed in The Guardian, neurologist Dr. David Nicholl who has been a central figure in the effort to impose the embargo, praised Lundbeck’s decision to halt the use of its product in executions, saying, in part, “This is the first time that a major global pharmaceutical company has taken such direct action to tighten up its supply chain to ensure that its drugs are used to benefit the health of patients, not assist in state-sponsored execution” (emphasis added).
Working to halt the use of pentobarbital across America, including here in California, death penalty opponents have managed to halt three-drug execution protocols, as states have scrambled to replace pentobarbital.
This, of course is where the hypocrisy of the supporters of the End of Life Options Act comes into play, since it is likely that each of the bills authors, principle co-authors, and authors are also strong opposed to the death penalty in California.
How can people argue a drug should not be used to “…assist in state-sponsored execution,” while believing the same drug is an excellent choice for use in state-sanctioned suicide?
I suppose that no one has ever said liberal logic was consistent.
Maybe conservatives can offer amendments to the End of Life Options Act, allowing the California Department of Corrections to use this painless, peaceful, and compassionate drug on Scott Peterson, Jeffery Hawkins, Richard Phillips, or any of the other 751 prisoners sitting on California’s Death Row.
Doug Haaland is the Executive Director of the Sacramento County Republican Party and a longtime aide in the California State Legislature