Why It Is Needed & Necessary

January 24, 1997

 Physician-assisted suicide is a hot topic this month, as it came up before the U.S. Supreme Court to be decided. It is a complicated issue with fine issues of gray not often given much time in the mainstream media. Such an important issue which will likely affect nearly every American's life at one time or another should be more carefully considered. Why does the American Medical Association oppose this "new" responsibility of doctors? Why do most Americans support it?

 Physician-assisted suicide has gotten a lot of attention in the past few years, although it has been going on for centuries. The attention likely started with Jack Kevorkian's publicity of his actions in helping those with terminal illnesses to die earlier for pain relief. But it has been going on longer than since Dr. Kevorkian's recent actions... With the advent of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s, increasingly larger numbers of patients began asking their doctors for help near the end of their life as they battled a terrible and painful disease. And doctors have silently been going along with most of these patients' wishes, because there was no reason to prolong their lives at the end, which would only result in additional pain.

 It is not only the pain involved which speaks to the need for physician-assisted suicide, but also the amateurish attempts made by family and loved ones to help end a person's life. If a doctor won't help their terminal patient die, the patient will find another way without the doctor's help. Often this takes the form of taking certain pills and alcohol together (an often lethal combination). But if this doesn't do the job, the person could be left alive in a coma. Or need a loved one to try and suffocate them in their sleep. Is this death with dignity? How long must a human suffer terrible and unrelenting pain at the end of their life before they are allowed to die?

 The American Medical Association (AMA) defends their stance against physician-assisted suicide, saying, "[Physician-assisted suicide is] incompatible with the physician's role as healer and caregiver. It is not a Constitutional right.

Fear of pain, losing control, being a burden to or dependent upon family members, and losing dignity is certainly understandable. However, it does not justify a physician assisting in suicide. Medicine's role should not be to remove patients from the need to face the realities of death. Even if patients choose suicide over natural death, this must not be interpreted as a 'right' to have physicians assist them."

 This is compassion? If a doctor isn't supposed to help someone in real, physical pain (not simply the paternalistic "fear of pain") and the illness is terminal, who is supposed to help this person end his or her own life with a shred of dignity left intact? The AMA suggests that if physicians were more aware of pain issues and prescribed enough painkillers, this would be a moot point. Apparently they are unaware of the state medical boards which regularly suspend the licenses of doctors who prescribe "too many" pain relievers to their patients (see, for example, the January, 1997 issue of Reason magazine). Nice way of addressing the issue -- suggest an unworkable and useless alternative and blame doctors' existing lack of knowledge. How nice for the physicians' own professional association to take such a high-confidence stance with regards to their own members!

 Meanwhile, people suffer. Doctors won't prescribe enough painkillers and so still they suffer. High courts and even higher-priced lawyers argue this issue. And still they suffer. Some will stop suffering when they ask a loved one to end their suffering, if their doctor won't. Some will die, some will live another day in physical pain. There is no slippery slope here. There is only the wish to live a full life and die quickly, painlessly. Thoughtfully.

 People need choices. That is what a democracy is about. The Constitution guarantees Americans the freedom of life and making those choices about their life. A person's life includes how they die. If people want to avoid pain, humiliation and degradation in their deaths, that is their choice. It should be done professionally and legally within a caring, advanced society. Doctors are the logical professionals to take this additional responsibility on.

 I'm sure I need to note here the difference between physician-assisted suicide (because of a terminal physical illness) and an individual's wish to die to relieve emotional suffering. They are two entirely different things. Physical pain and terminal illness define a person's right to help end their life sooner to reduce un-needed suffering. Emotional pain is transitory and -- despite many people's feelings when they are severely depressed -- will eventually pass in short time for most people. With the help of medication and psychotherapy, nearly all depression can be cured within a few months nowadays. Some people have more severe, chronic depression, naturally, and for those people, they may live with constant depressive feelings.

 The courts should allow for the legal assistance of a physician in specific situations under specific circumstances, with full legal authorization from the patient and his or her family. Physicians are the technicians and experts of the human body and are best equipped to handle such a request. The same reason abortion is legal (because it is a woman's right under the Constitution and ensures adequate health care of the mother and baby) should suffice to make this practice legal as well.

 At the end of our natural life, shouldn't we all have the right to die with dignity?

 - John

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 29 Mar 2015
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