POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Nov 30, 2011
On Oct. 5, state Rep. Blake Oshiro hosted a panel discussion on the legality of doctor-assisted suicide in Hawaii. The keynote speaker for the discussion was attorney Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs for Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group intent on convincing our population of the legality of doctor-prescribed death for terminally ill patients within the state. With her was the president of that group, Barbara Combs Lee.
Although a law specifically designed to institute assisted suicide failed to pass in Hawaii's Legislature in 2002, Compassion & Choices contends that such a practice is already legal, anyway. According to Lee, a law passed in 1909 when Hawaii was a territory allows doctors to legally prescribe life-ending drugs to patients who have been diagnosed as terminally ill. Lee and those associated with her take this position based on that law's allowance of "furnishing any remedial agents" to such patients:
"When a duly licensed physician pronounces a person afflicted with any disease hopeless and beyond recovery and shall give a written certificate to that effect to the person afflicted to his or her attendant nothing herein contained shall be held or construed to forbid any person from giving or furnishing any remedial agent or measure when so requested by or on behalf of such afflicted person."
Tucker contends that this portion of the 1909 law proves Hawaii "does not have a criminal prohibition against aid in dying." And if you read Tucker's writing ("End-of-life Law and Policy in Hawaii Aid in Dying") or study Lee's work on behalf of Compassion & Choices, it's clear that they've based their beliefs on the fact that doctors can legally provide "remedial" agents to the terminally ill.
But the problem is that they're reading their own meaning into "remedial," defining it in a way that would be wholly foreign to the lawmakers who employed it in 1909. For example, if we look at how the word was used around the turn of the 19th century, it's clear that a "remedial" agent would be a less orthodox remedy, such as we have today with herbal agents. So when the statute from 1909 banned prohibiting doctors from taking the remedial route with their terminal patients, it was basically saying that once all practical and orthodox forms of medicine had been exhausted, the physicians were not to be disallowed from methods and medicines considered unorthodox to the medical community.
In other words, the statute Lee and Tucker are using in 2011 to support death was actually passed in 1909 to allow any person to exhaust every possibility in extending life — specifically to extend life once a doctor gave a patient a certificate that the patient was afflicted with terminal leprosy, tuberculosis or asthma.
In this endeavor, Lee's and Tucker's organization, formerly known as The Hemlock Society, is supported by other like-minded organizations, such as the Democratic Party of Hawaii's Kupuna Caucus, the Kokua Council, and the Hawaii Death with Dignity Society. And as is characteristic of such groups, it seems the panel discussion they took part in on Oct. 5 was not really designed to be an exchange with the public so much as an announcement of victory for their side.
For example, six hours before the conference even started, Compassion & Choices posted a news release about how broad-based the support for their position had been at the news conference … even though the news conference was still six hours away: "Today, in Hawaii, a panel of experts convened at the state Capitol. Legal, medical, elder care, legislative and end-of-life authorities concluded Hawaii law permits physicians to provide aid in dying subject to professional best-practice standards … "
Talk about putting the cart in front of the horse. What we have here is a mischaracterization of the word "remedial," wherein a 2011 connotation is applied by a group that wants it to mean doctors can legally help people kill themselves in Hawaii. Moreover, we have that same group — Compassion & Choices — scheduling public discussions on the matter but posting news releases hours before those discussions to tell us how well the discussions went.
In the end, this may all prove but a springboard from which to launch a focused push for doctor-prescribed death in Hawaii in 2012. But the doctors, politicians and people of Hawaii should be very afraid of putting any stock in the false argument that the law permits any such thing. Depressed patients need understanding and sound medical treatment, not encouragement to kill themselves.
James Hochberg is a
Honolulu lawyer and
Alliance Defense Fund
affiliated attorney who
will participate in a free
panel discussion on
assisted suicide 7pm Dec 8
at Hawaii State Capitol