It has been twenty years since Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law took effect after a public referendum. Since then, four other states have legalized physician-assisted suicide.
Polls seem to show strong public support for physician-assisted suicide. They ask questions like this one from a 2017 Gallup poll: “When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?”
Unfortunately, most people have only a vague idea about what such laws actually say and do. Here are six things you must know before you decide whether to support or oppose physician-assisted suicide.
1. Pain or any other suffering is not a requirement for a person seeking assisted suicide; “a disease that cannot be cured” can include manageable conditions like diabetes as well as terminal illnesses like cancer.
None of the US laws are restricted to patients experiencing pain, which can be addressed in ways that do not deliberately kill the patient. In 2016, for example, almost half of patients using assisted suicide in Oregon cited their reason for seeking death as “Burden on family, friends/caregivers” while just 35 percent cited “Inadequate pain control or concern about it.”
2. Medical professionals participating in physician-assisted suicide are immune from accountability and standards of due care.
“No person shall be subject to civil or criminal liability or professional disciplinary action for participating in good faith compliance with” Oregon’s law. Thus any licensed doctor (or other healthcare provider), with or without experience and regardless of his or her medical specialty, can write a lethal overdose prescription for a patient as long as he or she claims to be in “good faith compliance.” As a legal standard, this test is effectively meaningless, because it relies only on the physician’s word.
The physician is not required to be—and often is not—the patient’s primary care doctor. Many physicians do not want to be involved in this process, according to “Compassion & Choices,” an organization that promotes the legalization of physician-assisted suicide throughout the United States. When one doctor (or many) conclude that it would be irresponsible to give a lethal overdose to a patient, such organizations encourage patients to find a doctor with lower standards.
No other medical intervention has such immunity protection from lawsuits or criminal investigation. In addition, no other medical intervention is so devoid of standards for the clinical expertise or education required of the physician involved.
Read more at the Public Discourse.