Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

There is mounting pressure in our nation to promote what is called death with dignity. The predominate argument is that persons facing terminal illness shouldn’t have to suffer with pain but rather should have the right to end their life on their terms providing end of life comfort. Advocates argue that individuals have the right to control when and how we die and the state has no right to enact laws that prevent these choices.A patient turns to his/her physician for guidance in time of physical and emotional suffering. The physician has pledged to do no harm to his patient. Never should a patient have to be concerned that his doctor may be involved a decision to kill him.

There are multiple problems with the policies of doctor prescribed suicide, some of which include:

Terminal illness – This is a very vague term and difficult to define. For legislative purposes it means the patient has 6 or fewer months to live. Accurately predicting life expectancy is impossible in most instances. Furthermore, some diseases are incurable and could be considered terminal if not treated (Diabetes, leukemia, mental illness, HIV) but are controllable. If some Diabetics stopped treatment, they could be expected to die in 6 months.

Pain – The National Institute of Health reported that pain isn’t the primary reason persons sought physician aided suicide. More common reasons were depression, hopelessness, and loss of control. Many laws don’t even require mental health evaluations before allowing the prescription to be written.

Palliative Care – Great advances have been made in this arena and providers are able to control pain, psychological, social, and spiritual suffering.

Therapeutic Options – Prescribing life ending drugs has become accepted medical treatment. Patients may be presented with treatment options such as comfort care, palliative care, hospice, pain control, etc. They may not have access to these options however. The insurance company may only authorize the less expensive option, i.e. lethal injection. This has occurred in Oregon with a prostate cancer patient who was denied chemotherapy but offered a suicide drug.

Vulnerable individuals – The elderly, poor, disabled, and others who may be dependent on others for care can feel worthless or a burden to family or society thus thinking that suicide is the only or best solution. Oregon reports that fear of being a burden was the reason for the request by 48% of those who died by physician prescribed suicide.

Physician Accountability – Any licensed physician is able to determine that a patient has the ability to make the informed decision that they wish to end their life. If a doctor doesn’t believe a patient is capable of making this decision, or that they are being pressured (elderly, disabled, poor), other providers can be sought until one is found who will offer the prescription.

Slippery slope – This voluntary policy is toward the involuntary killing of persons deemed undesirable and a burden to society. Infants born with severe defects are an example as are persons with advanced dementia, individuals needing long term expensive therapies such as renal dialysis and many other situations. Once society becomes desensitized to killing its citizens it is a simple step to categorize some lives as being worth less than others and hence too costly for society to support.