"I think it's a watershed year," says Peg Sandeen, head of the non-profit "Death with Dignity" (http://www.deathwithdignity.org), based in Portland, Oregon, which campaigns for doctors to be able to prescribe lethal doses of barbiturates to terminally ill people.
The practice is already legal or has been decriminalized in 5 states (http://www.deathwithdignity.org/advocates/national).
Sandeen says public opinion may have shifted significantly after Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer, moved to Oregon last year, where doctor-assisted suicide is legal.
A video by Maynard in which she explained her reasons for choosing assisted suicide has been watched over 11 million times.
Maynard ended her life in November, but her story has given the existing death-with-dignity movement new momentum.
Bills were recently filed:
- in New York and California, 2 of the country's most politically influential states.
- Assisted suicide has just been legalized in Canada, after similar lawsuits there,
although it will be a year before the law takes effect.
The outcome of the legal battles that are likely to ensue in the US are hard to predict.
Assisted suicide faces opposition from:
- religious groups, as well as
- disability activists, who say it implies that those, who are
--- old or
have lives that aren't worth living – and that people could be pressured into it.
Diane Coleman, head of advocacy group "Not Dead Yet", which opposes assisted suicide, says the Oregon Health Authority's annual reports on the practice show the law there isn't working as intended.
She points to the wrong motives people gave for choosing assisted suicide:
only 30% of people, who took a prescribed lethal dose of medication in 2014,
cited pain or fear of pain, as one of the reasons for doing so.
Supporters of assisted suicide often cite pain as a primary reason why people should have the legal right to die.
But the state's report showed that suicidal people's concerns tended toward:
- loss of autonomy (91%),
- loss of dignity (71%) or
- being a burden on their family (40%).
Coleman is particularly concerned that people are choosing assisted suicide because they feel they are a burden.
"To me that feels more like a duty to die than a choice to die," she says.
What's more, according to the data available for Oregon, some people waited longer than 6 months between asking for the overdose and taking it.
It isn't stated how many times this happened, but at least some people lived a few years after obtaining the drugs.
Coleman is concerned that this means people are being accepted for assisted suicide, who don't meet the criteria of having less than 6 months to live (https://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Documents/requirements.pdf).
"Those people were not actually terminally ill," she says.
Sandeen, however, says that while doctors sometimes underestimate how long people have to live, this is rare.
She adds that the small number of people choosing assisted suicide, in Oregon last year:
105 out of a population of around 4 million – is reassuring.
"That should give other states solace that they will have the same experience – that it will be a rarely used option."
In the UK, the Supreme Court ruled last year that parliament should re-examine the issue as there is a "real prospect" of a future legal challenge succeeding.
"There's an appetite for this now," says Jacky Davis, chair of "Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying" (http://www.hpad.org.uk).