Dying With Dignity; A Close Look At Physician-Assisted Suicide

Izzy Oberman

Medical research and technology have improved significantly over the past few decades. Doctors can make more accurate diagnoses and determine health problems much more effectively. However, this also means that more and more people every day are being diagnosed with terminal and debilitating diseases, including  cancer, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS. In light of all of these discoveries, a new, rather controversial idea has been gaining popularity in medicine — physician-assisted suicide. This term is defined by the American Medical Association as “when a physician facilitates a patient’s death by providing the necessary means and/or information to enable the patient to perform the life-ending act”. This definition includes physicians sharing information about lethal doses of medicine while supporting patients in their decision; sometimes, they even administer the medicine to patients themselves. 

Currently, there is a war raging in the U.S. over whether people should legally have the right to physician-assisted suicide. It is already legal in nine states including Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, along with the District of Columbia. In Montana and California, it is an option via court decision. According to CNN, these laws specify that “individuals must have a terminal illness as well as a prognosis of six months or less to live. Physicians cannot be prosecuted for prescribing medications to hasten death.” Still, many are strongly against the notion of people being able to die on their own terms with a doctor’s help. 

Part of the reason for the amount of controversy around physician-assisted suicide stems from the physician’s code of medical ethics, the code by which all physicians in the United States abide when it comes to the care of their patients. Many think that assisted suicide violates that code because doctors are not supposed to harm their patients, therefore making the action immoral and wrong. However, assisted suicide is also seen as a way to end some patients’ long-term suffering–a way to let them die on their own terms with dignity and also without forcing loved ones to see them slip away into a soul-taking illness. 

In addition, many people are concerned about the issue of trust between a patient and a doctor. People against physician-assisted suicide make the argument that to retain this trust, doctors should only provide medical treatment aimed at keeping their patients alive. They also argue that pain fogs the patient’s judgment in cases like these. On the other hand, when doctors are trusted with providing help to others, they know more than anyone what is in the patient’s best interest. The job of physicians is to support their patients, no matter the treatment the patient needs. If a patient decides that the best choice for him or her is to die and a doctor finds plausible medical and moral evidence for that claim, the patient should have that right. It should be the same–with appropriate safeguards of the law–as a doctor prescribing a course of treatment for a non-fatal disease. 

In 2014, Brittany Maynard was faced with the impossible diagnosis of an aggressive type of brain cancer. After months of treatment, her condition wasn’t improving. She decided to move to California, a state where physician-assisted suicide is legal and received the necessary drugs to end her life. In the weeks before ending her life, Maynard advocated for the legalization of assisted suicide. She dared anyone “ to tell [her] that [she] [doesn’t] deserve this choice” or “that [she] deserve[s] to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain” Maynard was suffering and treatment wasn’t helping. She wanted to die before the pain overtook her. She wanted to die before she wasn’t herself anymore and her family would be able to remember the good times, not the present. Luckily, a physician knew that no more could be done to save Maynard’s life and helped her die on her own terms, without any more suffering. 

Physician-assisted suicide gives the terminally ill a choice after so many other choices are stripped from them. No one asks for such a bleak diagnosis, but many are forced to deal with it–including the ill’s loved ones. Giving terminally ill people the right to safely and painlessly decided to end their life with a trusted doctor at their side allows them a dignified option. Physician-assisted suicide isn’t the choice for everyone, but everyone should be allowed the right to choose it. All people should be given the right to die with dignity.

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