Physician-assisted suicide (PAS), like euthanasia, results to the untimely death of a patient and should therefore be deemed illegal. A physician-assisted suicide could be distinguished from euthanasia by looking at the final act which causes death. In the case of euthanasia, the patient dies because of what the physician directly does, like injecting the patient with a lethal substance. In a physician-assisted suicide, on the other hand, the final act which causes death is personally performed by the patient, thereby actually committing suicide. Although the patient in PAS commits suicide, the means or the tools which he or she employs is provided by the physician. An example of such a tool is a prescription for a lethal medication and the accompanying instruction how to use it. In other words, while the physician does not do the actual killing, he or she assists the patient in committing suicide (Braddock and Tonelli).
Because of this act of aiding and abetting in the killing of patients, PAS, like euthanasia, should be considered illegal and unethical because of several reasons. First, a PAS program, no matter how well-intentioned, could be abused. The poor people who have neither money to spend nor health insurance to cover medical expenses are potential abusers of PAS because they have no access to adequate or prolonged care and patient support. Their financial difficulties often force them to favor an assisted-death even if they still want to spend more time with their ailing kin. At the same time, their patient, who is only too aware that his or her family is sacrificing a lot just to allow him or her to live longer, could be pushed just as easily into deciding to request for an assisted-death (Braddock and Tonelli). As a matter of fact, in the third annual report of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, the only legalized PAS law in the country which was implemented in 1998, 12% of patients who died from PAS cited “becoming a burden to family and friends” as their reason for requesting a physician-assisted suicide. This figure rose to 26% in 1999 and further increased to 63% in 2000. These statistics only prove that dying patients from poor families would rather commit suicide than force their relatives to spend endless time, effort, and money (which they do not have) just to take care of them during their last days on earth (Department of Human Services, Oregon Health Division).
Second, physicians who participate in physician-assisted suicides are compromising the integrity of the medical profession. Physicians are supposed to be protecting life, not taking life. Their Hippocratic Oath specifically commands them to refrain from administering any kind of poison to any patient even if the patient requests them to (Braddock and Tonelli). In other words, even if a patient takes advantage of the provisions of a physician-assisted suicide law and requests for their help, such a request should be quickly refused. Since their oath did not provide for any exceptions, any action on the part of physicians that assists patients in committing suicide is a violation of their Hippocratic Oath. Somewhere in the same Hippocratic Oath, they pledge to “Be of benefit, or at least do no harm” (Braddock and Tonelli). This means that their primary role is to help their patient. In the event that they could not provide the needed cure, they should, at least, avoid from doing their patient any harm. By participating in physician-assisted suicides, they do not only harm their patients – they actually facilitate their death. This is why the major medical professional groups like the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Geriatric Society (AGS) vehemently oppose physician-assisted suicide (Braddock and Tonelli).
For physicians, violating their Hippocratic Oath could be the most unethical action they could possibly be guilty of. When physicians start ignoring their oath of professional conduct for the sake of justifying practices like physician-assisted suicides, what will happen to the people who rely on them for medical assistance? Dr. Richard E. Thompson, in his article entitled: “Assault on the Professional Ethic: Will Professionalism Survive?” which was published in the September-October 2007 issue of The Physician Executive, declared that “Individuals who exhibit the professional ethic are a stabilizing influence, if not an indispensable component of civilized society” (Thompson). In other words, Thompson was suggesting that physicians who violate their Hippocratic Oath in order to wittingly assist dying patients to end their lives are either uncivilized or are products of a barbaric society. .
Third, the medical profession, in general, or physicians, in particular, are not infallible. This means that doctors make mistakes in making their diagnosis or prognosis. A physician could commit mistakes in prescribing treatments based on wrong diagnosis, or could be prescribing inadequate pain treatment so that the patient remains in severe pain unnecessarily. In other words, based on a wrong diagnosis and a wrong treatment regimen, it is highly possible that a physician could be advising a patient who is in severe pain that he or she has less than six months to live (Braddock and Tonelli).
Under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, a dying patient could request a physician-assisted suicide if he or she is n adult; a native of Oregon; is mentally and intellectually capable; and has been diagnosed to be terminally ill and is expected to die in six months (Department of Human Services, Oregon Health Division). There is a great danger that a mentally and intellectually capable patient could be incorrectly diagnosed with a terminal illness. Since he or she is capable of making his or her own decision, Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act allows such a patient to request for a physician-assisted suicide and meet not only an untimely death but a grossly unnecessary one. The State is mandated to safeguard the lives of the people. If physician-assisted suicide is legalized, how can the State protect patients who find themselves under these circumstances?
Physician-assisted suicide not only causes untimely deaths for all the wrong reasons – it also makes a mockery of the end-of-life palliative care meant to ease the pain felt by the dying patients. In a sense, people are being treated like animals that are sent to their death as soon as their usefulness comes to an end. Caring for the patients as long as possible gives them the opportunity to wait for future discoveries in the field of medicine which could finally cure them of their illnesses. For these humane reasons, physician-assisted suicide should be considered illegal.
Braddock, Clarence III H. and Tonelli, Mark R. “Physician-Assisted Suicide.” University of
Washington School of Medicine. October 2001. 15 April 2008.
Department of Human Services, Oregon Health Division. “Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act:
Three years of legalized physician-assisted suicide.” 22 February 2001. 15 April
Richard E. Thompson, MD. “Assault on the Professional Ethic: Will Professionalism
Survive?” The Physician Executive, September – October 2007. 15 April 2008.