Dr. John LaPook, chief medical correspondent for CBS Evening News, aired a largely one-sided report on Sunday's 60 Minutes that featured seven advocates for legalized assisted suicide for the terminally-ill. Dr. LaPook hinted at his slant during the introduction to the segment: "We wanted to hear from patients and family members who've experienced it, and are fighting to make it legal nationwide." The journalist/doctor, who donated $20,000 to the DNC in 2004, only included one talking head who spoke against legalization — a doctor in Oregon who "faced these issues with his own wife...when she was dying of cancer." [video below]
Three of LaPook's pro-assisted suicide guests came from one case in Oregon: Brittany Maynard, a brain cancer patient who overdosed on barbiturates in November 2014; her husband, Dan Diaz, who now works with "Compassion & Choices" (a merger of the Hemlock Society and the Compassion in Dying Federation); and her doctor, Eric Walsh. The CBS correspondent underlined that Maynard's "decision made her a symbol in the debate about how much we should be able to control the time and manner of our own death. This is not euthanasia, when a doctor gives a patient a lethal injection....Aid-in-dying, or what opponents call 'assisted suicide' and supporters call 'death with dignity,' relies on people taking the medication themselves."
LaPook summarized the brain cancer patient's case, and included clips from her and Diaz. His bias emerged again as he played a clip from his interview of Dr. Walsh:
JON LAPOOK (voice-over): Dan Diaz has kept in touch with Dr. Eric Walsh, the Oregon physician who prescribed the medication. Dr. Walsh couldn't talk about the specifics of Brittany's case due to patient privacy; but for the first time has agreed to discuss why he prescribed the medication to her, as well as to 19 others.
DR. ERIC WALSH: When somebody's facing the end of their life shouldn't they be in control? Shouldn't I be able to help them when they're suffering, and the burden of living becomes intolerable to them?
LAPOOK (on-camera): We hear a lot about statistics about the Oregon experience. But it's a lot of, sort of, statistical detail; and not a lot of emotion.
WALSH: You're right. The — the statistics are very dry. Someone said that statistics are human stories with the tears washed off.
LAPOOK: Tell me about your tears, perhaps, once you're involved in this.
WALSH: You know, we categorize tears into a single adjective — tears of joy, tears of sorrow, tears of regret. But actually, in the physician aid-in-dying, these are tears that contain all — all of those adjectives.
The CBS correspondent then introduced Elizabeth Wallner and her adult son, Nathaniel. He pointed out that Wallner "sued the State of California for the right to end her life with medication." Dr. LaPook also noted that she "was raised Catholic, [and] disagrees with those who say aid-in-dying goes against God's will." Wallner asserted, "I don't believe in a God that would want me to suffer and struggle to death....The only argument that I've heard that actually makes any sense is that there is some beauty in struggle. And I agree with that. There is beauty in struggle. But four and a half years into a struggle, I'm good."
LaPook finally got to his anti-assisted suicide talking head eight minutes into his 13-minute report: "Oregon physician Dr. William Toffler, who's taken care of terminally ill patients for 40 years, worries doctors prescribing medication may not know people well enough, and might miss signs of depression." Dr. Toffler outlined the reasons why he opposed his state's assisted suicide law:
LAPOOK: ...He [Dr. Toffler] believes one reason Oregon's legislation is flawed, is that the state isn't required to track what happens to people after they fill their prescription.
DR. WILLIAM TOFFLER: Ninety percent of the time here in Oregon, there's no doctor present. So there's really a shroud of secrecy under this whole thing. The only cases that come to light really aren't very reassuring.
LAPOOK: Dr. Toffler is referring to the fact that out of the nearly 1,000 people who've taken the medication, about 30 cases of complications have been reported to the Oregon Health Authority — mostly vomiting — and six patients regained consciousness at least once before dying.
TOFFLER: It's basically corrupting the practice of medicine, where we are no longer providers for the health and well-being of patients until they — they die naturally. But we're now actually hastening death by giving people massive overdoses. This is an inherent conflict of interest for doctors.
The physician also cited his experience with his wife, who died of cancer: "Even with breathing difficulties, like my wife had with her terminal illness — and she had that fear. I had to help her to understand, 'Marlene, we can get through this together. We've got medicines to help relieve the air hunger. It's not gonna be that bad.' And it wasn't."
LaPook spent much of the remainder of the segment playing up a case where a terminally-ill cancer patient, Jennifer Glass, was placed in palliative care and seemingly suffered during her final coma. He ended with another clip from Elizabeth Wallner, where the doctor helped the cancer patient spin her plan to end her life:
WALLNER: Those deaths were really, really different. And Jennifer [Glass] died in pain, and in fear, and panicking, and thinking she was drowning.
LAPOOK (on-camera): Whereas Brittany [Maynard]?
WALLNER: Brittany crawled into bed with her husband. He had her arms around her, and she was asleep in five minutes. And both women are gone. And yet, the difference of what they left behind is so profound.
LAPOOK: And it sounds like, from what you're saying, your decision to, perhaps, take the medication will be a final act—
LAPOOK: Of protecting your son.
WALLNER: Absolutely. I just want him to remember me laughing and s you know, giving him a hard time, and telling him to brush his teeth, and (laughs) knowing that I would — I would, you know, walk across the sun for him.
On Friday, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley previewed Dr. LaPook's segment by playing clips of Diaz and Dr. Walsh. However, he didn't included any clips from Dr. Toffler — making the preview segment completely one-sided.