By Tom Cushing
Reeling-in The ReaperUploaded: Jun 1, 2015
Grappling with the Grim Reaper usually doesn't end well. Legislatures in two states, however, are currently embracing him ? and bringing needed doses of rationality to our relationship with death.
First, Nebraska has not only passed a bill repealing the death penalty for state law crimes (three times, even ? as required in their one-house legislature), it also barely overrode the Governor's veto of their action. Thus, the Cornhuskers became the first conservative state in many years to do so.
By contrast, famously blue CA voters have consistently retained capital punishment. If you're keeping score at home, 19 states have abolished it, and of the 31 states that retain it, 9 have executed more than 2 inmates in the past year. Texas has killed 525 convicts, about half the national total, with another 265 currently awaiting their fate (12 of the 153 death row denizens who've been exonerated are Texans).
Americans are remarkably conflicted on the subject, and our outcomes nearly defy explanation. Liberal Massachusetts, for example, has had no death penalty since 1947, and yet a Boston jury invoked the sentence on the surviving marathon bomber, under federal law, after 14 hours of deliberation. In the northeastern states, (where only NH and PA still have it on the books), 58% of Americans polled favored death in that case, while nationally the split was a narrower 53/45% in-favor.
My very first of these many epistles dealt with the subject (What Price Retribution?), and suggested that capital punishment fails as a remedy on all of economic, equal justice and deterrence grounds ? leaving ethics and morality to the individual conscience. Many readers and commenters disagreed (which seems to have established a pattern); Prop 34 on repeal went down by a 52-48% margin in 2012.
Nebraskans appeared to be swayed by a mix of the practical and the ethereal. State Sen. Colby Coash was able to frame the debate as ending an inefficient government program. In addition, as he explained to the Christian Science Monitor: "? we're all created by God, we have a limited time here, and then he will decide when we're supposed to go home. And government shouldn't really be messing around with that plan?" Other concerns included the current unavailability of lethal drugs with which state-sponsored interveners could do the deed.
It's not clear that the second rationale would hold sway in these parts, as the CA legislature addresses the so-called End of Life Option Act. That bill, which passed out of Senate committee last week after the CA Medical Ass'n ended its traditional opposition, would allow legal physician-assisted suicide, under tightly regulated circumstances.
Probably the first thing to understand here is that it may be happening now, without benefit of the state's imprimatur. Conclusions are murky, given the legal risk, but in one national study done in the 1990s 3% of doctors indicated that they had prescribed lethal dosages, and 5% had given injections to hasten demise.
Second, it is extremely important to tread cautiously here, policy-wise, to ensure the quality of the terminal (within 6-months) diagnosis, the mental clarity of the patient, lack of duress, and procedural safeguards against abuse of the drugs* and promoting the safety of the public. Without belaboring the issues (you can read the current bill here), SB 128, modeled on Oregon's experience, appears to address these issues adequately. The CMA relented after the bill was amended to allow physicians and facilities to opt-out of the process.
The arguments against SB 128 are based on religious tradition, concern for the adequacy of safeguards against patient abuse, and fear among disability rights advocates that this is a step onto a slippery slope that renders persons with disabling conditions particularly vulnerable.
Those in-favor contend that this most fundamental lifetime decision really ought to be controlled by the person most-affected by it. Second, it's argued that that in the bill's absence, we subject our dying citizens -- usually somebody's loved one -- to excruciatingly painful, essentially meaningless and outrageously costly treatments that address the fleshy husk at a sacrifice of the patient's soul, and probable wishes. Abuse concerns must be managed, but are, in fact, manageable.
Personally, I think the 'ayes' have the better of it. The other objections Are manageable, per Oregon's experience. And if Free Will is to mean anything, it must be applicable here. Determining the moment of my passing-out-of-the-jurisdiction is a decision that my Deity is comfortable leaving in my hands. Besides, I'm not sure how you can really make the "god's will" argument and accept any treatment, at all.
I hope this bill passes into law ? I just might need it someday, and if I do, I'd prefer to "do it my way." ** I also hope that the next time we get a chance to vote on the death penalty, we decide that the Nebraskans are onto something.
* the bill does not define the pharmaceuticals, beyond calling them "aid-in-dying drug(s)." They are to be taken orally, by the patient. It is surprising to me that they are available, as are speedily effective drugs for animal euthanasia, but lethal injection drugs are not. That's the stuff of another blog.
** By the way, have you enacted your very own Advance Directive yet, to ensure that your wishes are carried-out, in case you become unable to express them? See this helpful recent edition of the RC: Link.