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Physician-Assisted Suicide: For and Against

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The history of the debate for physician-assisted suicide has been long, even tracing back to the Greek and Roman times.1,2 The debate originally was centered around the Hippocratic oath and the condemnation of the practice. With the upsurge of Christianity, many physicians continued to condemn the practice. Within the last two centuries the public has spurned many discussions about Physician-assisted suicide and Euthanasia from many different historic perpectives1. Although this debate has been lengthy and many of the issues discussed over the centuries are repetitive, new ideas and concerns do emerge with the current debate. Many terms are used in the debate for Physician-assisted suicide, and in order to alleviate confusion through out the paper a few definitions will be given. Voluntary active euthanasia is the intentionally administering medication or other interventions to cause the patient’s death at the patient’s explicit request and with fully informed consent.

Involuntary active euthanasia is the intentionally administering medications or other interventions to cause patient’s death when patient was competent but without the patient’s explicit request and/or fully informed consent. Nonvoluntary active euthanasia is the intentionally administering medication or other interventions to cause patient’s death when patient was incompetent or not able to explicitly requesting it. Terminating life-sustaining treatments is withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining medical treatments from the patient to let him or her die. Palliative care or indirect euthanasia is administering narcotics or other medications to relieve pain with incidental consequence of causing sufficient respiratory depression to result in the patient’s death. Physician-assisted suicide is a physician providing medication or other interventions to a patient with the understanding that the patient intends to use them to commit suicide 2. Although there are many terms, confusion can abound. However the discussion of physician-assisted suicide will be the focus of the paper, since most of the press and discussion has been about this subject 3,4,5,8,12,13.

A few public advocates have spoken for physician-assisted suicide. Besides Doctor Jack Kervokian with his “death machine”, Dr. Timothy Quill shows the compassionate side of physician-assisted suicide. In the story of Diane, Dr. Quill tries to convince physicians to take seriously the request of a patient to die 3. Currently Oregon is only state that allows physician-assisted suicide. Many of the supporters say there is a right to choose when and where one dies. Quill does speak in favor of legalizing physician-assisted suicide 4. However he brings up ideas about dignified death. The argument of the right to die comes from the right to terminate life-sustaining treatment. The authors of this argument say there is no essential difference between physician-assisted suicide and termination of life-sustaining treatment, since refusal of life-sustaining treatment is an upheld legal right. The analogy is one of a person sitting on a beach waiting for the tide to come in to drown and then another person walking into the ocean to drown.5 Before the Supreme Court ruling in 1997, some argued that the right to terminate care would be expanded to physician-assisted suicide and therefore making it a right.

5 However, the Supreme Court did not say physician-assisted suicide is a right. (See later discussion of ruling.) In response to the claim there is a right to die, there was detailed article published in the Hastings Center Report about the evolution of rights. According to the original liberal thinkers on rights, the right to commit suicide goes against the idea of a natural right. The philosophical arguments go to show there is no historical precedent for a right to be made dead, let alone requiring others to help. The essence of individual freedom is a sense of not belonging to someone else, not merely doing whatever you please. The current positing of rights to do whatever one pleases is a modern development and is seldom upheld in courts. 6 So the argument that there is a natural right to die is a stretch from interpretation of rights and currently has no basis in the U.S. Constitution. Although there may or may not be a right to die, there are other arguments for physician-assisted suicide. Quill showed how compassion can lead to the assisting of one’s death.3 However at the same time Quill has discussed how a patient asking to die may not always be making a legitimate request.

His idea is that this request should lead to a query about death and the options should be explored, instead of a simple yes or no answer. His example of a 55 year old women who requested to die was really a response to not wanting to undergo any more treatment for cancer and a desire to take a more symptom-related treatment path. Some patients are in a spiritual crisis, psychosocial problems, and even clinical depression. All of these requests for help, with proper discussion of options can lead to a more positive end of life experience. Physicians can feel sympathetic to a situation where there is nothing they can due to alleviate the pain of a patient. For many, simply side-stepping the question is unethical since the question can represent a cry for help.7 So the compassion for a patient who is in terminal pain can lead physicians to aid in physician-assisted suicide now even though it is illegal.

Although there is know legal, medical, or philosophical historical precedent to allow physician-assisted suicide, physicians believe in physician-assisted suicide enough to knowingly break the law. Since the discussion of physician-assisted suicide surrounds feelings and uncertain situations, the discussion has turned somewhat from why to have physician-assisted suicide to how. A proposal has been published on the conditions of physician-assisted suicide.4 The first requirement is that the patient must have a condition that is incurable and associated with severe, unrelenting suffering and understand the prognosis. Second the physician must be sure the request is not made because of inadequate pain control. Third the patient must clearly and repeatedly request to die. Fourth the physician must be sure the patient’s judgement is not distorted. Fifth, the physician-assisted suicide should be only carried out in a meaningful doctor patient relationship. A physician should not be forced to participate in any act that they deem unethical. Sixth, consultation with another experienced physician is required to ensure it is a sincere request.

Seventh, all of the steps should be clearly documented.4 This policy takes reasonable sets to insure the procedure is not abused, but the chance of abuse is always present. To reduce the possibility abuse, the courts have recommended that the patient’s judgment be evaluated by a psychiatrist.8 Using a psychiatrist as a gatekeeper to physician-assisted suicide brings up many other troubling points. In the field of psychiatry, the desire to commit suicide is considered a mental illness that can be treated. With this attitude how can a psychiatrist say someone is of sound mind with the desire to commit suicide? Usually the profession considers a suicide as an unsuccessful treatment of a disorder. National studies have showed that 90% of all suicides in the general population show some sort of psychiatric disorder.9 However these cases do not focus on the terminally ill. The studies of terminally ill patients who desire physician-assisted suicide and the prevalence of diagnosed depression can range from 13% to 77%.10,11,12 Most of these studies have small numbers of patients desiring physician-assisted suicide so there needs to be further study along this line.

Also these studies were in a society where physician-assisted suicide was not openly allowed. The desire for physician-assisted suicide might change if it was legal, thereby changing the sampling pool. Also there are no studies examining the likelihood of terminally ill, suicidal patients changing their minds about suicide after receiving psychotherapy. So there is a lack of information on desire for suicide in terminal patients. Besides the case of not knowing the true nature of the desires for suicide in terminally ill patients, determining the patient’s capacity to make a decision could be difficult for a psychiatrist. How truthful will a patient be with a psychiatrist if one believes that they will not be allowed to terminate their life if the psychiatrist does not believe they are competent? Also, is depression a reason to hold back the decision for physician-assisted suicide? Many psychiatrists believe depression is a normal response to severe medical illness and not a sign of psychiatric illness.9 So, consulting a psychiatrist to determine competence may prevent abuses, but it leads to its own quandary, since psychiatrists may not want to perform this function.

Although many issues about physician-assisted suicide remain, many studies have shown a strong support of it in medical physicians and in the general public in two published studies. In Oregon, 60 percent of physician believed that the physician-assisted suicide should be legal in some cases. 46 percent said they would prescribe a lethal dose. Moreover, 7 percent have admitted to complying with a request of a patient for a lethal dose, although this act was illegal at the time.13 In the Michigan study, the public and physicians were questioned. The proportion of respondants favoring the legalization was 56 percent of physicians and 66 percent of the public. This was compared to 37 percent of physicians and 26 percent of the public who favor an outright ban.14 The reasons for each individual choice can vary but there is a support for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide that in some way needs to be addressed. Also the fact the Dr. Kevokian has never been convicted may be another example the support for physician-assisted suicide in Michigan.

Although some arguments for physician-assisted suicide are strong, many do have unresolved issues. Furthermore, the argument against physician-assisted suicide has many strong points. One of the most common arguments is the slippery slope. This argument is presented as a way to still allow the process to be illegal although there may be a moral authority in extreme cases.15 The presidential report of 1983 said “The Commission finds this limitation on individual self-determination [i.e., physician-assisted suicide] to be an acceptable cost of securing the general protection of human life afforded by the prohibition of direct killing.”16 The report expressed a concern for the general protection of all life. The report did not think the limit few who would be helped with practices such as physician assisted suicide is worth the sacrifice to the general protection of human life. The fear is that the financial costs of treatment or pressures from the family will cause the decision of the patient to have physician-assisted suicide performed.

The “slippery slope” claim is that the right to physician-assisted suicide will slowly spread to the disabled or mentally competent adults who are not terminally ill. The final extreme of the slippery slope argument is that it will finally reach a point of involuntary euthansia.15 Many cite the Dutch example of what will happen, however this discussion will be deferred to later. The arguments for the slippery slope normally do not distinguish a difference between euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, as noted by Mark Siegler. Society and legislators have all made a distinct difference between physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Also, the slippery slope argument ignores the current rights of real people in favor of the speculative harms that may be visited in future people.5 Another major objection to physician-assisted suicide is the loss of trust of a doctor. What will a patient think if it is known that their physician actively aided in someone else’s death. One maxim of medical care is “Cure sometimes, relieve often, comfort always.”

Many times a physician can not cure a disease and or relieve the symptoms. But how would a patient feel knowing that the doctor gave up on another patient especially if they were terminally ill and allowed the suicide to occur. The doctor-patient relationship is the foundation of all interactions and to have aided in death comes in the middle of it, would make more than a few patients uncomfortable. Also another maxim of a physician is to first do no harm; suicide can be seen as harm to a patient. The argument along these lines states that physician-assisted suicide distorts the healing purpose of medicine.17 This argument is valid and does cause many problems, however they must also be weighed against the needs of the particular patient, which each physician has to make. One issue that is difficult to resolve is the morality of physician-assisted suicide. Many physicians and patients have a moral dilemma with physician-assisted suicide. Another aspect involves the morality of the nurses who are involved with a possible action of physician-assisted suicide. If they object do they refer the patient to another nurse, or how do they voice their opinion against this action without involving the patient in the conflict between the physician and nurse?18 Besides the nurse there are many others who are involved as well.

How do institutions make their policy clear enough ahead of time to alleviate any problems especially in the situation with terminally ill patients? What is the pharmacist’s moral responsibility in this scenario? Do they ask the patient if the medication is for committing suicide? If they consciously object to physician-assisted suicide how do they perform their function? Do they not fill the prescription outright, or do they only fill the prescription to a level where the patient can not commit suicide? Another aspect of this is the responsibility of the doctor to provide further care. What happens if the suicide is botched somehow, or if other complications make the suicide impossible? There are many issues involved with the actual act and how it affects all of the people involved in the health care of the patient.19 Another argument against physician-assisted suicide is that the physicians’ professional societies, in particular the America Medical Association, has come out against the legalization of physician-assisted suicide.

They have actively campaigned against the laws in Washington, California, and Oregon. The idea that the national organization stands against this measure is good for public policy support, however as previously mentioned many of the physicians polled in different studies responded positive to the legalization of the physician-assisted suicide. Some have claimed that the conservative leaders of organizations like the AMA are not necessarily representative of their constituents,20 though the AMA did recommend a more careful examination of the issue. While there are many moral and practical decisions about the legalization of physician-assisted suicide, there is the example of the Netherlands. Although assisted suicide is still illegal in the Netherlands, the courts and government have come out with a set of guidelines that when followed ensure that a physician will not be prosecuted — in essence decriminalizing the act. However, in the Netherlands there is not much of a distinction made between physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia since framers of the law did not want to discriminate against patients who could not effect their own death.

There are four guidelines given to prevent a physician from being prosecuted. The first is the patient must be mentally competent adult. The second requirement must request euthanasia voluntarily and repeatedly and the physician needs to document the requests. The third requirement is the patient must be suffering intolerably, with no prospect of relief. The forth is the doctor must consult with another physician not involved with the case. In 1990 and 1995 the Dutch government commissioned surveys to see the true nature of euthanasia in the Netherlands. The surveys were headed by Professor Jan Remelink, the attorney general of the Dutch Supreme Court. The Remelink surveys have been tossed around between the two sides of the discussion of physician-assisted suicide, with both sides claiming that the surveys prove their points. Initially the 1990 survey showed that only 18 percent of all euthanasia was reported to the government with the proper documentation, the number has since risen to 41 percent in 1995.

The rise in number could be contributed to the change in reporting procedures. There are many reasons why physicians still do not fill out the forms,23 so the reporting is not fully accurate. Some of the reasons mentioned for not filing the report are it is time consuming, burdensome and possibly incriminating.23 The example of the Netherlands is normally selected to show evidence of a slippery slope, but van der Maas, vader Wal, Haverkate, and rest of the authors themselves claim “our data provide no conclusive evidence in either direction” in regards to the slippery slope.22 Many observers disagree with them.21,24 The startling fact that many cite as evidence of a slippery slope is the reported 1030 deaths in 1990 and 948 deaths in 1995 where the ending of a life occurred without the request of the patient. Many of the doctors involved in these cases claimed that many of the patients expressed interest in the decision ahead of time and at the end they were in a position where the patient could not ask.

Still, there were a few reports of doctors ending the lives without the explicit request of a patient. The involuntary deaths is also not increasing, so some believe that the Dutch physicians continue to practice physician-assisted dying only reluctantly and under compelling circumstances.25 However others argue that the society is becoming more tolerant of physician-aided death and that any death with out explicit request is morally objectionable and any system that allows that is not justified and that the Netherlands is sliding down the slippery slope towards nonvoluntary active euthanasia.21,25 While the Netherlands can provide insight into physician-assisted dying, a few differences need to be noted. First the only discussion in America is for physician-assisted suicide. Second the societies of the Netherlands and America are different and we each subscribe to different ideals. This does not mean that all of the evidence from the Netherlands is not important, we just need to realize that there is a limit to how far we project the results of the Netherlands onto American culture. While physician-assisted suicide is not legal in the U.S. except in Oregon, the Supreme Court ruled on the states’ right to decide individually on the legality of physician-assisted suicide.

The two cases were Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg, where the court upheld the right for the states to criminalize physician-assisted suicide.26,27 The Supreme Court reversed both decisions of the lower court’s opinion claiming it was illegal to criminalize physician-assisted suicide; however the Supreme Court did not say there was a right to physician-assisted suicide. The Supreme Court did say in the concurring opinions that the patient had a right to palliative care. They did believe that when a physician gave pain medications to relieve the suffering of a patient such treatment would be permissible even if another consequence of that pain medication is a shortening of the patient’s life. The Supreme Court did allow states to pass their own laws on the subject and allowed a discussion of the right to physician-assisted suicide in the public. In the case of Lee v. State of Oregon, the courts ruled that there was not enough protection for the terminally ill patient who may end up in a premature death who may actually want to live. This lack of protection came from the absence of a mental health professional consult when physician-assisted suicide is requested.8 So the courts do say there is a state interest in protecting patients who may want to live.

While the states interest in protecting patients is one of the key legal arguments against physician-assisted suicide and making physician-assisted suicide illegal. So the courts have upheld the pillars of protecting the patient. However, in attempting to protect the patient the courts have incorporated the psychiatrist, which brings up the dilemmas of the psychiatry previously mentioned. Many physicians agree with the ruling that palliative care is very important and should not be restricted. 28, 29,30 However they also agree that the debate for physician-assisted suicide is not over. Some however disagree with the idea of a right to palliative care. They do not disagree with the idea of comforting patients at the end of their death, but they do think sedating someone to death is ethically problematic. The claim is that terminal sedation is equivalent to a slow euthanasia. If one sedates someone to a deep sleep and then withdraws food and water, does this ethically follow the guidelines of right to refuse medical treatment?

The physician is putting the patient in a position where artificial support can be legally removed. Dr. Orentlicher claims the court rejected the idea that terminal sedation “is covert physician-assisted suicide.” He also claims that in rejecting a right to physician-assisted suicide they embraced a direct form of euthanasia, which can be easily abused.31 While terminal sedation can be abused and at best there is still debate on the permissibility of terminally sedating a patient and withdrawing life support, the courts have upheld a right to palliative care, as long as the primary purpose of the sedation is to relieve pain and not hasten death. While the moral and ethical debate rages in the public and the courts, physicians have to deal with such situations every day. Looking back to the study of Oregon physicians, 4 percent of the physicians studied had given a lethal prescription to a patient and the patient had taken it, while 7 percent of physicians admitted to actually giving the medication.

While this number may seem low, one must remember while the study was conducted it was illegal to write a lethal prescription. Attempts have been made at nationwide surveys of the practice of physician-assisted suicide, but not many of the surveys are returned and those that are cannot be factually verified. So the current prevalence of physician-assisted suicide is completely unknown. The practice, if it does occur, is not talked about openly, due to the legal ramifications. Additional research must determine the current actual practice of physicians. In the debate of physician-assisted suicide, there are many valid arguments on each side. This paper has only been able to touch on the surface of many of the arguments. Whichever path society does choose in regards to physician-assisted suicide, moral objections will need to be addressed. Either way, the public needs to be educated about the different legal options concerning the end-of-life care and the consequences of any changes in laws governing such care.


1. Emanuel E J, Euthanasia: historical, ethical, and empiric perspectives. Archives of Internal Medicine 1994;154:1890-1901. 2. Nyman DJ, Eidelman LA, Sprung CL, Euthanasia. Critical Care Clinics Jan 1996;12:85-96. 3. Quill TE, Death and Dignity: a case of individualized decision making. New England Journal of Medicine 1991;324:691-694. 4. Quill TE, Cassel CK, Meier DE, Care of the hopelessly ill: Proposed Clinical Criteria for Physician-Assisted Suicide. New England Journal of Medicine 1992;327:1380-1384. 5. Canick, SM Constitutional Aspects of Physician-Assisted Suicide After Lee v. Oregon. American Journal of Law and Medicine 1997;23:69-96. 6. Kass LR, Is there a right to Die? Hastings Center Report Jan-Feb1993;34-43. 7. Quill TE, Doctor, I want to Die, Will You Help Me? Journal of the American Medical Association 1993;270:870-873. 8. Lee v. State of Oregon 891 F.Supp.1429.

9. Zauble TS, Sullivan MD, Psychiatry and Physician-Assisted Suicide. Psychiatric Clinics of North America September 1996;19:413-427. 10. Chochinov HM, Wilson KG, Enns M, et al, Prevalnece of depression in the terminally ill: Effects of diagnostic criteria and symptom threshold judgments. American Journal of Psychiatry 1994;151:537-540. 11. Chochinov HM, Wilson KG, Enns M, et al, Desire for Death in the terminally ill. American Journal of Psychiatry 1995;152:1185-1191. 12. Bukberg j, Penman D, Holland JC: Depression in hospitalized cancer patients. Psychosomatic Medicine 1984;46:199-212. 13. Lee MA, Nelson HD, Tilden VP, et al, Legalizing Assisted Suicide – views of Physicians in Oregon. New England Journal of Medicine 1996;334:310-315. 14. Bachman JG, Alcser KH, Doukas DJ,
et al, Attitudes of Michigan Physicians and the Public toward Legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide and voluntary Euthanasia. New England Journal of Medicine 1996;334:303-309. 15. Siegler M, Is there a Role for Physician-Assisted Suicide in Cancer? No. Important advances in oncology 1996;281-291. 16. President’s Commission on Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavior Research. Deciding to Forgo Life-Sustaining Treatment. A Report on the Ethical and Legal Issue in treatment Decisions. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1983. 17. Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, American Medical Association. Decisions near the end of life. JAMA 1992;267:2229-2233. 18. Haddad A, A woman with terminal bone cancer has asked her physician to help her end her life. He plans to lend assistance. If he asks you to make a lethal drug available to this patient What would you do? RN March 1997;17-20. 19. Alpers A, Lo B, Physician-Assisted Suicide in Oregon: a bold experiment. Journal of the American Medical Association 1995;274:483-487. 20. McKhann CF, Is There a role for Physician-Assisted Suicide in Cancer? Yes. Important Advances in Oncology 1996;267-279. 21. Hendin H, Rutenfrans C, Zylicz Z, Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Netherlands. Journal of American Medical Association 1997;277:1720-1722. 22. van der Maas PJ, van der Wal G, Haverkate I, et al Euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and other medical practices involving the end of life in the Netherlands, 1990-1995. New England Journal of Medicine 1996;335:1699-1705. 23. Van der Wal G, van der Mass PJ, Bosma JM, Evaluation of the notification procedures for physician-assisted death in the Netherlands. New England Journal of Medicine 1996;335:1706-1711. 24. ten Have HAMJ, Velie JVM, Euthanasia in the Netherlands. Critical Care Clinics Jan 1996;12:97-108. 25. Angell M, Euthanasia in the Netherlands-Good News or Bad? New England Journal of Medicine 1996;335:1676-1678. 26. Vacco v. Quill, 117 S.Ct. 2293 (1997).

27. Washington v. Glucksberg, 117 S.Ct. 2258 (1997).
28. Paola FA, How Dead Is the federal Constitutional Right to Assisted Suicide? American Journal of Medicine 1998;104:565-568. 29. Burt RA, The Supreme Court Speaks: not assisted suicide but a constitutional right to palliative care. New England Journal of Medicine 1997; 337:1234-1236. 30. Quill TE, Meier D, Block SD, et al, The Debate over Physician-Assisted
Suicide: Empirical Data and Convergent Views. Annals of Internal Medicine 1998;128:552-558. 31. Orentlicher D, The Supreme Court and Physician-Assisted Suicide: rejecting assisted suicide but embracing euthanasia. New England Journal of Medicine 1997;337:1236-1239.

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