Thursday, February 2, 2012

Vermont: "Assisted suicide law sends contradictory message"

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Guy Page, a parent and resident of Cambridge.

In the Jan. 19 mail I received a letter from Lamoille Union High School, where my daughter is enrolled. It begins with the following sentence: “Over the last few years Vermont has seen an increase in suicide among young people.” It went on to describe a school initiative to hopefully address this awful development. I hope they are successful. All of my children have friends, or friends of friends, who have taken their own lives.

My eldest son, Tim, was a constant suicide risk through his teens. Through the wise, compassionate help of state social workers, Tim escaped his teen years alive. I can tell you that he was personally shaken by the implications, to him, of the proposed assisted suicide law several years ago. When he heard about it, my brilliant, troubled son began to shake in anger and almost despair. “Those hypocrites,” he said. “They’ve been telling me all this time that suicide is never OK.” It didn’t matter when I said the law is meant to address another set of problems – his teenaged hypocrisy-o-meter had already pegged assisted suicide as another example of “do as I say, not as I do, it’s all right for adults, not OK for kids.”

Recently I researched teen suicide in Oregon, where assisted suicide became legal in 1998. According to the Oregon health department website, there were more teen suicides after the law passed than before — 1999: 29 suicides. 2000: 44 suicides. 2001: 31. 2002: 37. 2003: 46. 2004: 52. The last two years were the highest two-year period in their survey. Furthermore, 94 percent of teen suicide attempts leading to hospitalization were caused by ingesting drugs – the only form of assisted suicide permitted by Oregon state law. Kids learn from their elders.  [See:]

Does this “prove” a link between the Oregon physician-assisted suicide law and teen suicide? No. But the burden of proof is on those who say, “Don’t worry, it will all be OK, none of our teens will think that.” As a parent of an at-risk child, I think this law may unintentionally tell other troubled teens “when it gets too hard it’s okay to end it all.” As the letter from my daughter’s high school says, the real world is a very hard place for some teens right now, and I think this law will just make it harder.

There are plenty of other reasons to oppose this bill. Before my wife passed in February 2011, she was appalled and upset at end-of-life questions asked of her in the ICU that to her seemed motivated by hospital cost-control. It drove a (thankfully temporary) wedge of distrust between her and her caregivers. So Vermont Insurance Commissioner Steve Kimball’s newspaper comments connecting this end-of-life issue with the high cost of health care were chilling. By contrast, Orange County Sen. Mark MacDonald’s daughter was one of Diane’s nurses and provided skilled, affirming care that should be the goal of the state’s health policy. But for me the teen suicide connection is reason enough for the Senate to drop this bill before it does irreversible harm.

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