Colorado Strengthens Physician-Assisted Suicide Movement

The right to die has been slow to gain momentum, especially among voters. In Colorado, they defied the odds.
by | November 8, 2016
Aid-in-dying supporters rally for the cause. (AP/Russell Contreras)

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.

When the issue of physician-assisted suicide has been put to voters in the past, it hasn't fared well. But on Tuesday, voters in Colorado overwhelmingly approved it.

Proposition 106, which gives mentally competent adults with a medical prognosis of six months to live the right to request a prescription to end their lives, passed handily. With 54 percent of the votes reported, 65 percent were in favor of the ballot measure.

Colorado now joins California, Oregon, Vermont and Washington state in legalizing the right to die, which is also called aid in dying or death with dignity. In Montana, there's no right-to-die law, but thanks to a state Supreme Court ruling, doctors are legally protected to participate as long as they have the patient’s request in writing.

The movement has been slow to gain momentum -- Oregon was the first state to legalize aid in dying in 1994. Six other states' voters have weighed the right to die, but only two of them -- Oregon and Washington -- adopted an aid-in-dying law. Voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan all rejected the idea.

Colorado state Rep. Joann Ginal, who watched her late brother battle a terminal illness for years, introduced a death-with-dignity bill in January, accompanied by companion legislation in the Senate. Both bills eventually failed along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against.

“If my dear brother had an option to take medication that would have ended his suffering, I don’t know if he would have done it. But I wished he had that option,” she said.

But not everyone supports the idea.

One of the more vocal opponents of the ballot measure was state Sen. Larry Crowder. He feels that a law allowing people to end their life is too drastic.

“I understand the pain and the suffering families endure, and I know it takes a lot of money to keep these people alive," he said, "but I think we should be focused on ways we can improve the lives of those terminally ill."

Other critics argue that if physician-assisted suicide is legalized, then pharmaceutical companies will incentivize the lethal drug over the medications it would take to keep the patient alive. Prop. 106 actually prohibits that by criminalizing providers for trying to coerce patients to request the lethal drug.

But that didn't alleviate critics' concerns.

So out of fear of big pharma pushing deadly drugs, and the ballot measure's lack of a requirement for providers to report prescriptions, the state’s two biggest newspapers urged voters to reject the proposition.

Still, the measure passed anyway.

"It’s not about suicide," said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. "These people are going to die anyway. They’re terminally ill … I think they should have that right to have medical advice, medical supervision, be able to make sure they have the final say themselves."

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.