Doctor Assisted Suicide in the United States
Since ancient times, it has long been debated if physician assisted suicide should be legal and if it is moral. In ancient Greece and Rome there were doctors who administered poison to assist ill patients. In the 4th century, Hippocrates declared he would never give a deadly drug to anyone nor suggest it (ProQuest). There have always been supporters and many valid arguments for both sides of this debate.
The argument in favor of doctor assisted suicide can be emotionally charged when involving a loved one. Many who are in favor, at one point, experienced the death of someone close to them. My grandmother died a slow and painful death. I wouldn’t be truthful if I said that it did not cross my mind that I did not want to see her suffer and would want to take her pain away from her. I reflect on that with this research in mind and question if the offer was presented to help her, if the family would agree that would be best for her. If she had requested it herself, it would have been emotionally traumatic to deny her. A multiple sclerosis patient, who wanted her husband to assist her in her death once her condition became unbearable, fought and won a legal battle to prevent her husband from being prosecuted for aiding her. This changed the way Great Britain ruled on those assisting in suicide. (Milmo). This is just one of many decisions made in support of assisted suicide. In the 1930s and 1940s, Germany and Switzerland are two of Europe’s countries to legalize euthanasia. The United States was behind some other countries in any permission to allow doctor assisted suicide. Whereas, for many years, doctors would administer pain medication to relieve pain and suffering, they would not be permitted to assist in termination of life. In fact, in 1957 Pope Pius XII issued a doctrine supporting the use of pain medication but not assisting suicide. (ProQuest) It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1900s that this argument was presented into our courtrooms to stand ground. In 1906, a bill was considered but rejected 79 to 23 votes (ProQuest). For many years to come, senators and representatives presented bills to be voted on to institute the right-to-die which are denied. It was not until the 1990s that consideration was reviewed to legalize any form of assisted suicide. However the United States has allowed, by living will or health proxy, to honor a DNR (do not resuscitate) order. If the patient’s heart stops or they stop breathing, it states their wish to not be artificially sustained. This is viewed differently because it allows natural death. In 1989, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, an American pathologist, placed an advertisement in a newspaper to offer death counseling. He began assisting patients in suicide in 1990. He was tried after his first assistance and the case was dismissed as there were no laws in Michigan regarding assisted suicide (Jack Kevorkian). A year later, Michigan outlawed assisted suicide. In 1998, Michigan enacted a law making assisted suicide a felony. In 1999, he was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Jack continued to advocate for assisted suicide after his parole but agreed to not assist patients. His determination had a major impact on talks, legal action and laws regarding the right-to-die and hospice care. In 1994, Oregon legalized the Death with Dignity Act. It allowed terminally ill patients the assistance of a physician to prescribe medication to terminate their life. The statutes of the law entailed the patient being diagnosed with a terminal illness that will take their life within six months, a written request for the prescription from the patient to the doctor asking for the medication, obtaining two witnesses (one not related) confirming their request, and a second physician confirming their illness and life expectancy. Two states followed suit, the states of Washington (2008) and Vermont (2013). In all three states, you must be a resident of that state to be assisted. One would think as the law passed, many people would opt to terminate their lives while terminal or burdened with undue suffering, however studies have shown that legalization of the practice of physician-assisted suicide has not increased the rate of deaths by a significant number (Jack Kevorkian). There are records of patients who chose to terminate their life but many. In fact, just having the choice of living or dying, has opened up discussions for patients with their families and doctors to discuss viable options. Statistics show that in 2008, 30,978 people died in Oregon. Only 60 (out of 90 who requested it) of those 30,978 died because of their choice to participate in physician-assisted suicide (Assisted Suicide). Then there are those who strongly oppose the right-to-die. Many arguing that if pushed past the emotional desire to die the person may feel differently and it would be too late. Others stating no one but God has the right to take a life, even your own. Most people that feel strongly against assisted suicide do feel there are other options that should be explored. In support of the argument that someone may benefit in time if not permitted to die is the case of Elizabeth Bouvia. She was a patient who was quadriplegic and had cerebral palsy. She fought in court against the hospital to have them stop force feeding her, she wanted to die. She lost the case. Three years later, an appeals court granted Elizabeth the right to refuse the force feeding. She opted to continue the feeding and decided to live. It raises the question, what if she was allowed to die three years earlier. There are people in the Church, the government and in the general population who oppose the right-to-die. In 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft threatened to revoke medical licenses of any physician attempting to aid in suicide, stating it violated the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 (ProQuest). It is no secret that most states are opposed to the right-to-die. The earliest American statute outlawing assisted suicide is enacted in New York in 1828 and states followed in suit. This battle still continues. Many states, however, have laws allowing patients to choose to allow or disallow medical treatment to sustain their lives. This is not in support or against assisted suicide as it does not intentionally bring on death but does not advocate to continue it either. The Catholic Church has always expressed opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide (Grovum). On a spiritual level, some feel that if you commit suicide that it affects your afterlife. But the Church says we have pity on those suffering not condemnation. Many protesters speak out and rally for the right-to-life and have formed organizations against assisted suicide. Such an organization is the American Association for Suicidology. Alan Berman is their executive director. He spoke out against suicide kits that are being sold online. These kits are sent out to anyone who purchases them, no questions asked from a woman who owns the online store. Berman stated the kits are immoral and equivalent to “basically handing someone a gun” without a check or if they are minors (Abdollah). The Right-To-Life Party is also anti-assisted suicide. There is the National Right to Life Committee that was formed in 1968, the political party Right To Life and local Right To Life organizations. They speak out and educate on involuntary euthanasia by providers and legalizing direct killing as well as other life-related issues. The overall understanding of these supporters is everyone has a right to live and no one has the right or power to take life away. Not Dead Yet is yet another organization against assisted suicides and euthanasia. They are a national disability rights group who oppose the legalization of assisted suicide. They deem a terminally ill person as disabled and advocate for their rights. (Not Dead Yet: The Resistance) The organization states no physician can truly deem if a patient has only six months to live and in fact, often misdiagnose a patient. From personal experience, I know this to be true. My uncle was given a couple of months to live when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He survived another four years. His quality of life was good until the last few months. I am certain everyone knows someone who has a similar story. So in case, it could be argued is this truly “mercy killing” or can it be deemed as homicide. This question is what raises the ongoing debate of should assisted suicide be legal and is it moral.
Abdollah, Tami. "Suicide Kits Rekindle Debate on Assisted Suicide." The Bulletin (2011): 1-3. Grovum, Jake. "A New Battleground in "Right to Die" Debate." stateline.org (2012): 1-2. Jack Kevorkian. 30 November 2013. .
Milmo, Cahal. "MS Sufferer Who Wants Husband to Help Her Die Wins Landmark Ruling." The Independent (2008): 2. Not Dead Yet: The Resistance. 2013. http://www.notdeadyet.org/assisted-suicide-talking-points. 1 December 2013. ProQuest. "Leading Issues Timelines." Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia Timeline (2013): 10.