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Legal suicide, marriage redefinition, contraceptive bills bow in Alaska

By Joel Davidson, Catholic News Service .

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A bill to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide in Alaska has been reintroduced in the Alaska Legislature. The bill would permit doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients for the purpose of suicide. A similar bill was proposed in 2015.

Opponents of the practice believe that patients -- including those with terminal illness -- need proper care, not a way to end their lives. In 2015, Access Alaska, a disability advocacy group in Anchorage, posted a strongly worded rebuttal to doctor-prescribed suicide shortly after the bill was introduced.

"What looks to some like a choice to die begins to look more like a duty to die to many disability activists," Access Alaska posted to its Facebook page. "If the values of liberty dictate that society legalizes assisted suicide, then legalize it for everyone who asks for it, not just the devalued old, ill and disabled. Otherwise, what looks like freedom is really only discrimination."

The post was a quotation from Diane Coleman, president and CEO of Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group that opposes doctor-prescribed suicide.

The Catholic Church also opposes suicide -- doctor-prescribed or otherwise. "We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of," states the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The bill is part of a national drive by the group Compassion& Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society. To date, doctor-prescribed suicide is legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California, Montana, Colorado and the District of Columbia.

In 2001, the Alaska Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there is no right to doctor-prescribed suicide. Justice Alex Bryner, who wrote the opinion, noted that the "terminally ill are a class of persons who need protection from family, social and economic pressures, and who are often particularly vulnerable to such pressures because of chronic pain, depression and the effects of medication."

Opponents of doctor-prescribed suicide have expressed concerns that the vulnerable will face pressure to be killed because it will be cheaper for insurance companies to pay for lethal drugs than expensive, lengthy treatments.

Two measures also were introduced that could redefine marriage, the first change in the state since 1998, when voters made Alaska the first U.S. state to define marriage as between "one man and one woman."

The first aims to amend the state constitution. The move comes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide. Since that time, Alaska has not changed its now-unenforceable definition of marriage. To change the constitution, the proposed amendment would need to be approved by voters in a general election.

The second measure aims to eliminate references to "husband and wife" with regard to marriage law, adoption and birth certificates. The bill aims to replace nearly all references to "husband and wife" with "two spouses." It also replaces "father" and "mother" with the sex-neutral term "parent." The same bill refers to marriage as a "civil contract entered into by two natural persons," rather than "one man and one woman."

Also, a new bill would force health care insurers operating in Alaska to provide coverage for the "full range" of prescription and over-the-counter contraceptives, sterilizations, contraceptive-focused exams and procedures and medical services. Insurers would be forced to cover the contraceptive pill, so-called "emergency contraception" and intrauterine devices, or IUDs, inserted in outpatient procedures.

The bill has a narrow exemption for some insurers that provide insurance plans to a "religious" employer who objects to the mandate and has either "self-certified" as such with the federal Department of Labor or has given notice to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This could leave out various organizations, including religious orders or religiously affiliated organizations with a focus on social services that aren't officially "religious" activities. Moreover, the bill would force insurers to cover contraceptives when they provide insurance plans to nonreligious, for-profit businesses or nonprofit organizations that aren't officially "religious" but oppose covering contraceptives and abortifacients for religious or ethical reasons.

The bill also prohibits insurers from requiring co-payments, deductibles or other forms of cost sharing to offset the costs of covering contraceptives. But the bill does not keep insurers from raising the prices of insurance premiums -- including those of objecting and exempt organizations -- to pay for contraceptives provided to others.

Apr 13, 2017

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