Advocates for assisted suicide are promoting Pennsylvania legislation that allows doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients who request it.
The national debate was set off earlier this month with the death of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard. She publicized her decision to take drugs to end her life after learning she had terminal brain cancer.
The process required Maynard to move from California to Oregon, one of five states in the country where assisted suicide is legal. Supporters in Pennsylvania say the commonwealth should be sixth.
“A lot of issues sort of lie dormant until they get some attention,” said Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery. He plans to reintroduce a “death with dignity” proposal in the state Senate next year. It would allow terminally ill patients who meet other specifications to request a prescription for life-ending medication. Supporters say it would minimize suffering for patients and their families.
Maynard’s case is only the most recent to bring attention to the issue. Earlier this year, a Schuylkill County judge threw out a case against Barbara Mancini, who had been charged with handing her father a lethal dose of morphine while he was in hospice care.
Assisted suicide is opposed by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania have called it “morally wrong.”
The Church is a formidable obstacle to passing such legislation in the commonwealth, which is among states with a larger percentage of Catholics.
“If you look around the country with regard to end-of-life policy, the Catholic Church is probably the most important explanation for where various states are,” said Dickinson College political science professor Jim Hoefler, who specializes in end-of-life issues. Pennsylvania was one of the last states to recognize living wills due to resistance from the Catholic Church, he added.
Many in the medical community also stand opposed.
“Doctors don’t want to be in the position of being asked to help people kill themselves,” said Hoefler. “It just runs counter to the entire culture of the medical community.”