Choosing the time to die is a very sensitive and controversial topic of around the world and as people suffering from terminal illness make the hard choices to seek an end to their suffering, governments debate the legality, ethics, and morality of physician-assisted suicide. As thousands of people around the world suffer from terminal illnesses, it is important to explore options that allow people to make the choice to die on their terms and physician-assisted suicide is one option for people looking to end their lives on their terms with dignity.
History of Physician-Assisted Suicide in the United States
Physician-assisted suicide it not a new idea and has been around as long as medicine itself dating back to Greek Roman times in the 5th century BC when the Hippocratic Oath was written. When discussing assisted suicide it is important to make the distinction between euthanasia and assisted suicide. Euthanasia is the intentionally administering medication to cause the patient's death and physician-assisted suicide is a physician providing medication interventions to a patient with the understanding that the patient intends to use them to end his or her life. It was not until 1902 that the subject of assisted suicide made its way to the courtroom. According to Cassity (2009), “In 1902, a criminal appeals court in Texas attempted to legalize assisted suicide, reasoning that if suicide was no longer a crime, then assisting suicide should not be a crime either” (p. 519). It was not until the 1970s that the subject made its way back to the courtroom when the right to die movement was born and began to examine the rights of patients to refuse medical treatment that would prolong their lives treatments. In 1976 the California Natural Death act allowed patients to instruct doctors to cease life sustaining medical treatment.
Although there were discussions and a few Supreme Court cases about self-determination, there was little public knowledge of the debates and ethical considerations of physician-assisted suicide. All of that changed in 1990 when Dr. Jack Kevorkian assisted an Oregon woman suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease to end her own life. The country now had a very public face to attach to a subject no one wanted to discuss. Soon after Dr. Kevorkian became the face of death, states around the country were forced to take a closer look at bioethics of physician-assisted suicide as patients were asking and doctors were denying their requests. It was illegal for any health care professional to prescribe lethal medications in the United States but that all changed when Oregon enacted the death with dignity act.
According to "Oregon Death with Dignity Act” (2012) “On October 27, 1997 Oregon enacted the Death with Dignity Act which allows terminally-ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose” (para. 1).
Washington was the next state to legalize physician-assisted suicide in November 2008 after a failed attempt in 1994 with a proposition introduced by the Hemlock Society. It is clear that we have a long way to go before other states will follow the examples set in Oregon and Washington to allow patients the basic right of choosing to die with dignity and not prosecuting the doctors who provide the assistance. We are not the first country to wrestle with the subject of assisted suicide.
Assisted Suicide in Other Countries
Several other countries that have seen the need to provide its citizens with the basic human right of choice in this most sensitive of issues, including Germany that has had no penalty for either suicide or assisted suicide since 1751, Finland also has nothing in its criminal code about assisted suicide, Switzerland...