Today’s New York Times has a piece on physician-assisted suicide: two states, Washington and Orgon, have laws that allow doctors to prescribe fatal doses of barbiturates for terminally ill patients. As far as I can see (and have witnessed on one video from Dignitas, the Swiss organization that helps organize doctor-assisted suicides), one just goes to sleep.
The piece highlights Dr. Richard Wesley, a physician who was diagnosed with ALS four years ago, is now wheelchair bound, and seems to find immense relief in knowing when he can choose his end.
As the Times piece notes, Massachusetts residents will vote on a similar law in November, but initiatives like this one have failed in California, Maine, and Hawaii. I don’t understand why this form of euthanasia isn’t legal everywhere. First, and most important, it saves patients (and their families) immense suffering.
Second, there are strict rules for undergoing the procedure:
In both Oregon and Washington, the law is rigorous in determining who is eligible to receive the drugs. Two physicians must confirm that a patient has six months or less to live. And the request for the drugs must be made twice, 15 days apart, before they are handed out. They must be self-administered, which creates a special challenge for people with A.L.S.
Finally, fears that such laws would lead to mass suicides have proven groundless:
Oregon put its Death With Dignity Act in place in 1997, and Washington’s law went into effect in 2009. Some officials worried that thousands of people would migrate to both states for the drugs.
“There was a lot of fear that the elderly would be lined up in their R.V.’s at the Oregon border,” said Barbara Glidewell, an assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University.
That has not happened, although the number of people who have taken advantage of the law has risen over time. In the first years, Oregon residents who died using drugs they received under the law accounted for one in 1,000 deaths. The number is now roughly one in 500 deaths. At least 596 Oregonians have died that way since 1997. In Washington, 157 such deaths have been reported, roughly one in 1,000.
. . . There were fears of a “slippery slope” — that the law would gradually expand to include those with nonterminal illnesses or that it would permit physicians to take a more active role in the dying process itself. But those worries have not been borne out, experts say.
Well, there are at least two reasons why these laws aren’t universal, at least in America:
Such laws have influential opponents, including the Roman Catholic Church, which considers suicide a sin but was an early leader in encouraging terminal patients to consider hospice care. Dr. Christine K. Cassel, a bioethicist who is president of the American Board of Internal Medicine, credits the church with that effort. “But you can see why they can go right up to that line and not cross over it,” she said.
The American Medical Association also opposes physician-assisted dying. Writing prescriptions for the drugs is antithetical to doctors’ role as healers, the group says. Many individual physicians share that concern.
The Catholic Church’s stand is immoral, for its activities prevent even non-Catholics, who don’t see suicide as a sin, from ending their suffering. And surely one can see the immorality of forcing terminal patients to continue suffering when they could end it all (and presumably meet the same post-mortem fate that they would have had they not taken barbiturates). Would God really send such patients to hell? What kind of God would that be?
The American Medical Association also needs to reconsider its stance. True, I agree that doctors shouldn’t assist with lethal injections of prison inmates, but this is a different situation. Why would doctors prolong suffering by withholding medication when they know the patient is doomed to a terrible end without it? Besides, as all doctors know, they already engage in a similar practice. That involves giving overdoses of painkillers like morphine to terminal patients: overdoses that they know will kill them by stopping breathing. The euphemism it goes by is “reducing pain,” since doctors are bound to do that if they can. They ask a patient if he/she is in pain, and if the answer is “yes,” they give more morphine—often enough to cause death.
But if they do that, why not reduce the pain by ending the suffering deliberately and permanently? It amounts to exactly the same thing.
I see no rationale, neither medical nor religious, for forcing terminal patients to meet a “natural” death, enduring mental and physical suffering right up to the end.