Tags: Healthcare Reform

Technologies of Life and Death

By Wednesday, 28 October 2015 06:06 PM Current | Bio | Archive

A friend of mine has been starting heated arguments lately by uttering the following question: “Can someone who is diagnosed with a painful, fatal prognosis and decides to commit assisted suicide in a U.S. state where it is legal expect their life insurance to pay the beneficiaries?”

One might expect companies offering life insurance plans to balk at such notions.

Moreover, conventional health insurance companies want to sell you more insurance with higher premiums to help defray the cost of long-term health problems not covered by typical medical insurance, Medicare or Medicaid.

Still, three states (Oregon, Washington, and Vermont) have “death with dignity” laws in effect, allowing mentally competent, terminally-ill adult state residents to voluntarily request and receive a prescription medication to hasten their death.

Oregon was the pioneer in this regard; voters approved the law in 1994 and “Measure 16” — otherwise known as the Oregon Death with Dignity Act — went into effect in 1997.

Interestingly, the Oregon Act doesn’t interfere with the sale of life insurance, and insurance companies cannot interpret a patient’s suicide differently than natural death.

The reasoning is that the person will very likely die shortly anyway, so insurance companies are forbid from denying claims on the grounds of suicide.

This payout requirement applies to life, health, and accident insurance policies, not just to life insurance.

Indeed, most states force insurance companies to payout on life insurance policies when someone commits suicide, but only after the policy has been in effect for a “contestability period” which is typically two years. Oregon's law eliminates that time period.

Thinking wild for a moment, as health technology continues to develop and as the cost of this technology continues to climb astronomically, Obamacare or no, insurance companies might decide that offering a life/health package with a special self-termination option would save them a greater fortune in paying for a patient’s escalating health care costs, save for the cost of whatever means is employed to accede to the person’s wishes.

Most readers might think of a lethal injection in this regard, but one could envisage, after the public becomes adjusted to the idea, of a whole industry profiting off of novel forms of self-termination.

One bizarre example is the “Euthanasia Coaster,” which actually started out as an art concept — a kinetic sculpture — by an amusement park worker-turned-Ph.D. candidate named Julijonas Urbonas, at the Royal College of Art in London.

In his description of his design an scale model construction of the device, described here, Urbonas was inspired by John Allen, former president of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, who once quipped that "the ultimate roller coaster is built when you send out twenty-four people and they all come back dead.  This could be done, you know."

In 2010 Urbonas designed and built a small scale model of the Euthanasia Coaster, which, in his words, is “a hypothetic death machine in the form of a roller coaster, engineered to humanely — with elegance and euphoria — take the life of a human being.”

The coaster would have an initial 1,670 foot tall “lift hill” and would incorporate seven “inversions” (loop-the-loops) subjecting riders to tremendous G-forces.

As Urbonas explains, “Riding the coaster’s track, the rider is subjected to a series of intensive motion elements that induce various unique experiences: from euphoria to thrill, and from tunnel vision to loss of consciousness, and, eventually, death.”

Of course, a sizeable segment of the population is not interested in any type of termination— self or otherwise.

As a growing population faces fewer and fewer resources, many fear the government’s attitude evolving from supporting one’s right to die to that of enforcing one’s duty to die, coupled with trepidation over overly eager organ harvesting doctors itching to quickly pronounce a person dead.

Outside of telepathy (if it truly exists), we cannot truly know the conscious state of another person, so the flip side of all this is the continuing development of technology that can keep people in various shades of “aliveness,” both known and uncertain in nature.

For example, a March 11, 2015 article by Tim Lahey in The Atlantic entitled, “Medical Technology Makes 'Time of Death' Harder to Pinpoint,” delves into how advanced analytical medical technology makes it difficult to determine when a patient is truly, “totally” dead.

The Atlantic article cites a 2014 study published in The Lancet which noted how 13 out of 41 patients in a persistent vegetative state showed detectable brain activity on PET scans, which the investigators believed an indication of “minimal consciousness,” a condition subject to various interpretations.

Are such people alive? Are they dead?

Who knows? In any case, I think I’ll be more worried about getting on the wrong roller coaster at my friendly neighborhood amusement park.

Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential Computer Telephony Encyclopedia (2000), he was the chief technical editor of Harry Newton's Computer Telephony magazine (later retitled Communications Convergence after its acquisition by Miller Freeman/CMP Media) from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now.


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As a growing population faces fewer and fewer resources, many fear the government’s attitude evolving from supporting one’s right to die to that of enforcing one’s duty to die, coupled with trepidation over overly eager organ harvesting doctors itching to quickly pronounce a person dead.
Healthcare Reform
Wednesday, 28 October 2015 06:06 PM
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