Terminally ill patients in Pennsylvania may soon have an alternative end-of-life option if a bill for physician-assisted suicide is passed by the Pennsylvania legislature.
The Death with Dignity Act is based on the Oregon law that allows physicians to prescribe lethal amounts of medication to the terminally ill at the patient's request.
"Most people do not choose to end their lives," said Dr. Arthur Caplan, the director of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "Most just like having the fallback to choose to do it."
According to Oregon's annual report on the Death with Dignity Act, the average age of a person who has died under the law is 72. Among those who have died, 80 percent had cancer and 97 percent died in their homes.
Challengers of the bill argue the legislation undermines the healing and life-preserving functions of the medical system. Caplan, who did not say whether he supports the bill, said many opponents feel it'll be a "slippery slope" if the bill is passed and fear the law will be wrongly used against mentally ill or disabled persons.
Professor Michele Stine, who teaches a values and ethics course for the biobehavioral health department at Penn State, detailed the difficulties of passing the bill.
"What you really have to consider are long-term ramifications," Stine said. "The patient has to think of the impact on their family, consider how much pain they're in, and consider their own values. People with terminal illnesses may also be very depressed and it's hard to discern if patients are free enough from these constraints to completely understand what they're doing."
The debate reached the United States Supreme Court in 1997 and the justices concluded with a 6-3 majority that physician-assisted suicide is not a constitutional right. However, because states regulate medicine, the court determined assisted suicide should be a state-regulated issue.
The bill, which has yet to reach the Senate, has faced its greatest opposition from Republicans in the past.
"I do not feel it is a Republican-Democrat issue," Pennsylvania state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, said. "It is based on internal beliefs. The government is trying to be compassionate, but suicide is not something that should be government-sanctioned."
Under the bill's guidelines, those who seek to end their lives would have to be diagnosed with a fatal disease that leaves them six months or less to live. Patients have to be conscious, at least 18 years of age and of sound mind to put in a request. Doctors are also required to inform patients of alternatives to suicide, including hospice care and a variety of pain medications.
For the patient to be prescribed the lethal medications, they would have to file a verbal and written request and then be evaluated by doctors and psychologists who are unrelated to that patient's health care providers.
The suicide option would only be available for in-state residents to prevent terminally ill from collecting in the state of Pennsylvania.
In 2007, an Associated Press Ipsos poll found about 48 percent of Americans favor physician-assisted suicides, while 44 percent oppose them.
Currently, Oregon and Washington are the only states that have legalized physician-assisted suicide.
"My forecast is the bill is unlikely to pass in Pennsylvania," Caplan said. "It should be debated, but right now it is just in a stage."