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“This is the first time I’ve been asked that question.” Hillary Clinton on PAD

As the Washington Post reported, a recent CNN Democratic Town Hall in New Hampshire featured Hillary Clinton’s response to a question about physician-assisted dying from Jim Kinhan, an 81 year old man who described himself as a Clinton supporter and as a person who is “walking with colon cancer with the word terminal very much in my vocabulary.” In response to Kinhan’s carefully worded question about what Clinton, as president, could do to “advance the respectful conversation that is needed around this personal choice,” Clinton acknowledged that she’d never been asked this question before, at least not in a public forum, although it seems clear that she recognized that the question was about physician-assisted dying.

It’s not surprising that this came up for the first time in New Hampshire, which borders Vermont, whose Oregon-type provision for physician-assisted dying has been in place since 2013, and Massachusetts, where similar legislation is pending after a ballot measure was narrowly defeated in 2012.  Kinhan has written about his support for pending legislation in New Hampshire that would commission a study of the issue.

Clinton’s response was far from a polished sound bite, but the transcript suggests that she views aid-in-dying as a question of public importance, one that people “deserve to understand” whether or not it is an option they would choose for themselves. She concluded her remarks in a way that those who follow this complex issue will recognize as thoughtful – interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and attentive to evidence, experience, and diverse moral perspectives:

“So I don’t have any easy or glib answer for you.  I think I would want to really immerse myself in the — the — the ethical writings, the health writings, the scientific writings, the religious writings.  I know some other countries, the Netherlands and others, have a quite open approach.  I’d like to know what their experience has been. Because we – we have to be sure that nobody is coerced, nobody is under duress. And that is a difficult line to draw.”

The headline of the Washington Post article said that Clinton was “stumped” by Kinhan’s question. It was an odd word choice. Ethical issues of public importance, with complex legal, medical, and social dimensions, rarely have easy answers. Kinhan himself told the Post that, “I was pleased she was being open and frank . . . I respected that.”

Nancy Berlinger is a Hastings Center scholar. Her most recent book is Are Workarounds Ethical? Managing Moral Problems in Health Care (Oxford University Press 2016). She is the lead author of The Hastings Center Guidelines for Decisions on Life-Sustaining Treatment and Care Near the End of Life: Revised and Expanded Second Edition (Oxford University Press 2013.

Published on: February 5, 2016
Published in: Health Care Reform & Policy

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