Physicians come to grips with Colorado's aid-in-dying law

Caregiver holding hands with patient.

The state of Colorado made it legal for physicians to assist patients in committing suicide, but doctors must decide whether to participate.

In response to Colorado’s recent ballot measure allowing assisted physician-assisted suicide, which passed with a two-thirds majority, the Colorado Medical Board rescinded its policy that considered the practice illegal, according to The Denver Post. That move protects the doctors who will write prescriptions allowed by the new law, and the board’s official position on assisted suicide is now neutral.

Support for the law among physicians runs lower than that of the overall population—56%, according to the article—with a quarter strongly opposed, and approval running slightly lower than 50% in rural areas. That tracks with overall national trends which have shown less support among physicians than among the population at large. Physicians in California went so far as to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of their state’s recently enacted assisted-suicide law.

While the Colorado law allows physician-assisted suicide, it does not require that doctors provide it to patients, leaving it up to individual doctors and hospitals to decide whether to participate in the practice.

Some see a potential silver lining if the availability of physician-assisted suicide generates more end-of-life conversations between doctors and patients. Lynn Parry, M.D., a neurologist from Denver, pointed out that Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” law, which has been in force for more than two decades, resulted in an increase in hospice use. Both physicians and patients find such conversations difficult, so there’s a natural tendency to avoid the topic, she said.