Ethan R. Okura
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Last month, the Hawai‘i Legislature passed a bill that gives terminally ill patients the option of taking prescription medication that will cause them to pass away peacefully in their sleep. On April 5, Gov. David Ige signed House Bill 2739, the “Our Choice, Our Care Act,” signed into law. It will take effect on Jan. 1, 2019.
Despite its almost unanimous passage, the law remains a controversial topic in many states. Taking one’s own life has been historically illegal under English Common Law. In many states, the act of suicide is considered a felony.
Over the years, however, more states have decriminalized the act of taking one’s own life. After all, how can you prosecute and punish someone for successfully breaking the law?
Regardless, it is still a crime in most states to help someone take their own life by providing them with the means to accomplish it or by participating in a physical act by which another person commits suicide. In some cases, it is even a crime to simply encourage someone to take their own life.
In 1994, Oregon became the first state in the nation to enact a Death With Dignity Act, making it legal for a mentally competent, terminally ill adult with a prognosis of six months or less to live to receive prescribed medication that allows the patient to pass away peacefully. The law was strongly opposed: There was a federal court injunction against it, and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that it violated the Controlled Substances Act.
Many people will remember the name of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the physician who brought national attention to the issue after he helped at least 130 patients end their lives. At the time, the death with dignity legislation hadn’t yet passed. Dr. Kevorkian believed that it was humane to allow people to have a choice and control over how to end their own life when nature was not giving them the choice to continue to live. He was prosecuted and jailed for his role in facilitating some of those deaths. Oregon’s law passed at the height of Dr. Kevorkian’s exposure.