HONOLULU—Hawaii looked euthanasia in the eye this month, and said no.
Despite the support of the governor and the state House and virtually all the local media for legalizing euthanasia, Hawaii's state senate rejected attempts to make Hawaii the second state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. The procedure, denounced by the Catholic Church, became legal in Oregon in 1997.
“We were so concerned about the impact this would have on Hawaii's elderly and sick populations, that this so-called right to die would turn into a duty to die,” Kelly Rosati of Hawaii Family Forum told the Register in a statement.
Three state senators changed their vote at the last minute, killing the suicide bill 14-11 on May 2. That last-minute change had little to do with a rejection of the practice, however.
“What bothers me about this decision, Mr. President, is that I am forced to make it in such a short time,” said Donna Mercado Kim, a Democrat who changed her mind just hours before the final vote.
“I have read this bill,” Kim continued, “and there are a couple of areas in which I am not comfortable with the bill. I would like to see amendments made to it.”
Hawaii's Democratic Governor Ben Cayetano blamed the rise of the conservative activists, like the Hawaii Family Forum, for the bill's defeat.
“The religious right in this state is very well organized, not only here in Hawaii, but throughout the rest of the nation. That had to have an impact in an election year,” said Cayetano.
The governor reiterated his support for physician-assisted suicide and remained optimistic that he, or another future governor, would sign such legislation.
“I think even though it failed today, it came very close and one day, perhaps in the next five years or so, this will become the law in the state of Hawaii,” Cayetano said.
Rosati acknowledged that the fight to prevent assisted-suicide in Hawaii was not over.
“This is just the beginning,” she said in response to the governor's comments.
Portland-based physician Gregory Hamilton has seen the affects of physician-assisted suicide in his home state of Oregon. Hamilton co-founded Physicians for Compassionate Care in order to advocate aggressive pain management without intentionally ending patient's lives.
After the May 2 vote, he told the Register: “The Hawaii legislature has done their duty. It has protected the vulnerable and disabled people who count on it to represent them.”
He applauds Hawaii for not legalizing a procedure he says is “fundamentally flawed.”
“The Hawaii legislature has duly noted the abuses already documented in Oregon and heeded their own medical, nursing, and hospice organizations to reject this dangerous, irresponsible and discriminatory law,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton said Oregon has become dangerous for seniors. He noted that an Oregon HMO has admitted that it caps in-home palliative care at $1,000, thereby giving terminal patients a financial motive to kill themselves to avoid burdening their families financially.
“Letting Oregon HMOs restrict hospice funding is a far cry from good palliative care,” Hamilton said.
HMO abuse doesn't stop there, he said. One Oregon woman, Kate Cheney, suffered from dementia and her psychiatrist said she lacked the competence required by law to elect physician-assisted suicide.
But Cheney's HMO received the approval of another doctor and ended her life.
Hamilton said Cheney's daughter apparently wanted to end the life of her 85-year-old mother.
“When the psychiatrist said she was not eligible for assisted suicide, the daughter and the new doctor did not accept the opinion as the safeguard it was supposed to be. Instead, they sought another opinion from a second mental health professional, since there is nothing in the Oregon law to stop them from doing so,” said Hamilton.
Advocates of physician-assisted suicide lamented the Hawaiian bill's defeat, saying it would mean unnecessary suffering for terminally ill patients.
“For persons to talk about just one person being killed—I know of several people who are going to suffer terribly because this law did not pass,” said Hawaii Hemlock Society president Andi van der Voort.
Hamilton rejected the argument that assisted suicide is required to help patients who must endure excruciating pain. In reality, he said, doctors have effective medical treatments to alleviate suffering. “Physicians in Hawaii know they can provide patients with the pain treatment and palliative care patients need without ever resorting to assisted suicide,” he said.
Hamilton noted that advocates for euthanasia had predicted political success but have nothing after Oregon to show for it.
“The majority of state legislatures have considered the issue and all of them have rejected assisted suicide. More than a dozen states in the past 10 years have strengthened laws against assisted suicide rather than following Oregon's lead,” said Hamilton.
He noted that voters after the Oregon experiment have consistently rejected the practice.
“California, Maine, Michigan and Washington have all defeated assisted-suicide referenda,” said Hamilton. “Liberal state supreme courts in Florida and Alaska have rejected assisted suicide. The U.S. Supreme Court found in 1997 that there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide.”
Pope John Paul II has expressed his profound concerns on the trend to legalize physician-assisted suicide. In a 1998 ad limina address to bishops from western states in America, including Hawaii, the Pope strongly condemned political activity to legalize the procedure.
“The Church likewise offers a truly vital service to the nation when she awakens public awareness to the morally objectionable nature of campaigns for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Euthanasia and suicide are grave violations of God's law (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 65 and 66); their legalization introduces a direct threat to the persons least capable of defending themselves and it proves most harmful to the democratic institutions of society,” said the Pope.
“The fact that Catholics have worked successfully with members of other Christian communities to resist efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide is a very hopeful sign for the future of ecumenical public witness in your country,” John Paul added, “and I urge you to build an even broader ecumenical and inter-religious movement in defense of the culture of life and the civilization of love.”
Joshua Mercer writes from