You may be wondering what assisted suicide is and why there is a public debate about it. For thousands of years, in virtually every culture, assisted suicide and euthanasia have been treated as homicide. This tradition protects the most vulnerable members of the human family – the frail; older people; those with severe or terminal illnesses; the depressed; and those with physical or mental disabilities or illnesses. It also legally prohibits one person from ending the life of another.
There is a growing trend towards "patient self-determination" to promote "death with dignity." Some incorrectly reason that, if the choice is freely made with safeguards in place, then choosing death can be a "benefit." These are the people who want to make assisted suicide and euthanasia legal.
What is assisted suicide?
"Physician-assisted suicide" involves a medical doctor who intentionally provides a patient with the means to kill him or herself, usually by an overdose of prescription medication. The person then dies of the drug overdose rather than natural causes.
Assisting in a suicide is not necessarily an action limited to physicians. The term "assisted suicide" applies if a layperson provides the deadly means to the patient.
Shouldn't assisted suicide be legal if a patient "freely" requests death?
This argument might seem reasonable to you. Supporters of assisted suicide argue that the right of a competent patient to make medical treatment decisions should include the right to request and receive assistance with suicide.
There are dangers, however, even when patients are allowed to "freely" request assisted suicide:
- Patients are misdiagnosed and could make an irreversible decision to die based on the wrong information. You may know someone who was told they had three months to live who survived for years.
- A government-ordered study in the Netherlands found that 65% of family physicians are of the opinion that a doctor may offer the choice of assisted suicide or euthanasia to a patient who has not asked for it.
- Because patients are strongly influenced by doctors, a vulnerable patient may feel there is no other alternative if his or her doctor recommends death.
- Who can confirm that the euthanasia or suicide choice was freely made when the only witness is dead?
- Patients with terminal or serious illnesses change their minds. When they don't feel well, they may want to die. When feeling better, they want to live.
- Patients suffering from depression may request death, not knowing that their quality of life can be improved with proper treatment.
- If society endorses assisted suicide, it will "teach" the weak and frail that they have a "duty" to die.
- Suicide is a serious problem among youth. If suicide is viewed as a normal, even legal event, it would teach our youth that taking one's own life is an acceptable and even a noble action.
- The collapse of support systems will lead patients to believe they have no other choice but death. Hospitals and insurance companies will find it cheaper to kill rather than care, placing more pressure on patients to choose death.
Shouldn't assisted suicide be available for people who are in pain?
No one wants to be in pain or see their loved ones in pain. This is a very real fear you may have. Fortunately, we live in a time when medicine has made great strides to manage pain. It is important to have a medical team who understands how to relieve pain.
The Wisconsin Cancer Pain Initiative has been working for many years to teach medical professionals how to relieve pain. Please click http://aspi.wisc.edu/wpi/ to visit their website.
The Alliance of State Pain Initiatives (ASPI) has an excellent booklet with information for patients on how to discuss pain symptoms with their doctor. The booklet can be found at www.aspi.wisc.edu/CPCBR.htm.
In Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, the most important reasons people report for requesting suicide is not pain but loss of autonomy and fear of incapacity. We hope after reviewing this information that you will not use pain as a reason to support assisted suicide.
What other reasons are promoted for using assisted suicide?
Make no mistake: while proponents of assisted suicide "sell" the act by talking about people who are in severe pain, they have no intention of stopping at pain or even terminal illness.
A professor from Brown University, Jacob M. Appel, wrote in the May-June 2007 issue of the Hastings Center Report that assisted suicide should be available to people who suffer from "repeated bouts of severe depression." This concept is finding support among mainstream commentators who favor assisted suicide, calling it "rational suicide." They reason that mental suffering can be just as great as physical suffering so people should be able to avail themselves of death to relieve an unbearable life of mental suffering.
This argument is known as the "slippery slope." Once you open the door for killing of patients for one reason, it is nearly impossible to limit the "right" to that one circumstance. Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan doctor who assisted in the deaths of over 130 people, helped people to kill themselves even if they were not dying. In Switzerland and the Netherlands, legalized assisted suicide for terminal illness has been followed by recognition of a constitutional right to assisted suicide for mental illness.
How would people be affected if assisted suicide is legalized?
You and your loved ones will certainly be affected. The practice of medicine would change because healing and killing would become equally valid goals of the medical profession. If death becomes a legal "right," doctors will feel obligated to offer death as an "option" to all of their patients.
Who opposes legalization of assisted suicide?
The driving force in opposition to legalization of assisted suicide has been medical and disability rights groups. The American Medical Association has an official position in opposition to legalization. Disability rights groups are opposed because they recognize that people with disabilities are potential victims of this practice.
In California, state and national Latino organizations worked with a coalition to defeat the proposed law there.
Right-to-life groups and major church denominations also worked to defeat these measures.
For more information on assisted suicide, please visit www.nightingalealliance.org.