Physician-assisted suicide: A morally acceptable decision

By Brett Harmon

Suicidal thoughts are commonly linked to feelings of depression, life events and mental disorders. Every year Americans are informed of high suicide rates, which leads people to believe it’s a socially acceptable option. While troubling by itself, this thought process should not detract from the fact that physician-assisted suicide has its place in a humane and compassionate society.

Physician-assisted suicide typically involves the injection of a deadly substance into a patient by the hand of a physician. Patients who choose this route suffer from unremitting pain and/or depression that cannot be treated. Some states permit physicians to prescribe a deadly injection to patients who ask for the treatment and meet certain criteria: they must be adults expected to die within six months, be able to take the drug themselves and retain the mental capacity to make a decision like this.

Doctors have treatments for pain and depression, and most patients approaching death in six months choose to live longer because they value life; thus, physician-assisted suicide remains an uncommon choice. Colorado, Washington, Vermont, California, Oregon, Washington, D.C. and Hawaii are currently the only states with laws allowing doctors to help end someone’s life. Physician-assisted suicide should be a legal medical procedure for all of the United States because it’s a sympathetic alternative to life for terminally ill patients nearing death.

“You may have heard or read or even feel that aid in dying is suicide. I’m here to tell you that it’s not suicide at all. Aid in dying is about having end-of-life options,” said Susan Rahn, a 47-year-old Rochester, New York mother who was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in 2013, according to Times Union.

People in the United States have become more supportive of physician-assisted suicide for patients within six months of dying. Numerous studies have shown that the number of U.S. adults who believe that physician-assisted suicide is morally acceptable has significantly increased over the last decade, according to Andrew Dugan, a political analyst for Gallup.

Anxiety over their time of death and the excruciating levels of pain patients suffer would be decreased from assisted suicide. The procedure brings peace and comfort to the patient’s family and friends who are tormented by their best friend’s or loved one’s suffering.

Medical support and counseling is not always adequate for the patient to overcome his or her suffering and that of the patient’s family. “In a workable system, the option of physician-assisted suicide would arise only after all treatment options are exhausted, and if a mentally competent patient continues to request assistance in dying”, says Michael White, a top trial attorney in Los Angeles. At this stage of their life, the patient deserves the right to make a personal decision without any religious or government interventions.

Others, however, argue that taking someone’s life is contrary to the idea that every human life has value. “Physician-assisted suicide cuts at the heart of human dignity by dismissing some lives as not worth living, wrote Monica Burke, a research assistant in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

“The potential harm of legalizing PAS is that we get a medical profession that gets used to killing patients and, potentially, an elderly population psychologically pressured to end their lives early, said Darrell Cole, a Religious Ethics and Theology professor at Drew University. Instead of supporting life, assisted suicide erodes the ethos of doctors treating and caring for patients and distorts the mission of palliative care in the United States.

Further, Burke opined that physician-assisted suicide promotes death over equality, as she wrote:

“Physician-assisted suicide sets a troubling precedent for public policy by undermining equality before the law, and if our legal system treats a subgroup of people as eligible to be killed, it would seriously compromise the natural right not to be killed.”

The idea might trouble Burke, but legalizing physician-assisted suicide for all 50 states would be the most ethical decision to protect the freedom and dignity of patients suffering from chronic pain or depression while preferring a treatment that causes death over extended medical treatments and psychological therapy.

The patient’s grieving family and friends will find some relief in physician-assisted suicide as the terminally ill patient’s suffering come to a merciful end. Legalizing physician-assisted suicide in every state will allow physicians to devote more time to patients who desire to live and reduce health-care costs for patients who require extra therapy and medication.

The arguments that physician-assisted suicide decreases the value of human life and violates human equality pale in comparison to the number of positive changes that would come from legalizing this medical procedure. Legalizing physician-assisted suicide in the United States would bring many benefits to our health-care system as well as protection for terminally ill patients who are within six months of death and competent to decide to end their life.

Brett is a sophomore Computer Science major

Graphic by David Giacomini

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