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Physician-Assisted Suicide – Alexandra Balcoff – Medium

The smell of iodoform burns my nostrils as I walk down the pale white hallways of the hospital. Hospitals are not the most welcoming of places, most people want to leave as soon as they get there. All of these sick people are here suffering; physically, mentally, and emotionally. A young girl sits on the bed in her hospital gown, wanting a way out of this misery. She wants to have control over her life, but her terminal illness has kept her hospital bound and there’s nothing she can do about it — she is living with chronic pain and the fear of dying at any moment.

Legalize Physician-Assisted Suicide

Death with Dignity

Professor of philosophy and medical ethics at Free University in Amsterdam, Evert van Leeuwen, believes that physician assisted suicide should be legalized to give people the chance to die with dignity. Leeuwen states, “assisting death in no way precludes giving the best palliative care possible but rather integrates compassionate care and respect for the patient’s autonomy and ultimately makes death with dignity a real option.” Instead of waiting around in a hospital suffering, you would have the chance to simply take a pill and end your misery in the comfort of your own home.

When denied this method, people often resort to other weapons that are much more painful for the families to cope with.

Relieve suffering

American Physician Marcia Angell’s father shot himself in the head when he had no other way to relieve the pain from his terminal prostate cancer. Marcia Angell was the first of the original fourteen petitioners to put the Massachusetts Death with Dignity Act on the ballot in November 2012. She believes that physicians should prescribe drugs to end patients’ lives when suffering cannot be relieved any other way. Angell believes the theory that physicians should only be “healers” focuses too much on the physician and not enough on what the patient actually wants. It should be a physician’s job to relieve suffering, even if that consists of the physician assisting their patient with their death.

The Hippocratic Oath

Before someone becomes a physician, they must take the Hippocratic Oath. In the Hippocratic Oath, it states that, “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrongdoing.” Medical physician Robert Olvera believes that doctors are not going against the Hippocratic Oath when participating in physician-assisted suicide, rather they are helping the sick to the best of their abilities at the end of their lives.

Losing Everything

Olvera believes that physicians should help their patients the best they can, and sometimes that includes helping them die. Olvera’s 25 year old daughter lost a 17 year battle with Leukemia. The last couple of years, she had lost her sight and was bedridden, having to be carried everywhere. Although she was blind and paralyzed, her mind was competent. When she was still able to talk, she would constantly ask her father for sleeping pills so she could go to sleep forever. Olvera told us that if he had known that physician-assisted suicide was available in 5 other states, he would have left in a heartbeat. Olvera is a doctor and his job is to heal, but seeing his daughter suffer for 17 years, slowly losing her senses, consciously aware of everything going on, he wishes he could have helped her end her life.

Do Not Legalize Physician-Assisted Suicide

Violating the Oath

Ronald W. Pies, professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University, believes that the Hippocratic Oath is the most important foundational document in medical ethics. In the Hippocratic Oath, it clearly states, “I will not administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will i suggest such a course.” Physician-assisted suicide goes against this in every way.

Not only do these physicians violate the oath, Pies also found that “in Oregon, 204 patients were prescribed lethal drugs in 2016 under the ‘Death with Dignity’ statute, yet only 5 patients were referred for psychiatric or psychological evaluation.” The patients are not examined to check if they are even mentally capable of making this life or death decision. On top of that, Pies also discovered that “physicians are notoriously bad in predicting when a patient will die, getting it wrong about 80% of the time.” Pies believes that if a physician can’t even make an accurate estimation on how long someone has left to live, then they should not be given the ability to end someone’s life.

Medical Expenses

Medical expenses can be extremely overwhelming. The expenses can be so much that Helena Berger, president and CEO of the American Association of people with disabilities, found that “the deadly combination of assisted suicide and our profit-driven health care system steers some patients toward lethal drugs, the cheapest form of ‘treatment’.”

Years of chemotherapy for treating cancer can immensely impact your income and because of this, Berger believes that people are using the drug as a financial escape. Berger announced that “since assisted suicide became legal in California and Oregon, the practice of medicine across the West has been irreparably harmed for patients who still want their diseases treated but are now simply offered the cheaper option of a quick death.”

Other forms of treatment, such as chemotherapy, are often very expensive and not covered by most insurance companies. Berger found that a physician from Reno, Nevada was told by two separate insurance medical directors that assisted suicide would be covered for his patients, but the curative therapies he had prescribed to save their lives would not.

Becoming a Burden

Deciding between expensive treatment and a ‘free’ lethal pill prescribed by a doctor can lead to feelings of worthlessness. Public policy fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s center for Ethics, Richard Doerflinger discovered that “in states that have legalized assisted suicide, in fact, most patients request the lethal drugs not due to pain (or even fear of future pain), but due to concerns of ‘becoming a burden on others’.” Doerflinger believes that because the expenses for treatment are so high, many patients feel that they are a financial burden on their families.

Beyond The Binary

This debate is very complex, but there is a path beyond the binary that might resolve this disagreement.

First, I believe that we should eliminate the enormous cost difference between a beneficial treatment and a lethal prescription. This removes the bias and simplicity of choosing the cheaper option.

Next, I believe that before a patient is prescribed the lethal drug, they should have to have at least 3 weeks of therapy talking with a psychologist. This eliminates heat of the moment decisions. If someone has been sick for a while, but then gets into a fight with their family and suddenly wants to receive the prescription, this time gives them the opportunity to cool down. To go along with this, I believe that a mental health test should be given to understand the real reason behind wanting this lethal method.

Following this, I believe that it should be the physician’s decision when it comes down to prescribing the actual drug. No one should HAVE to kill someone. Doctors join the medical field to heal — no one should be forced to do the opposite. Lastly, I believe that when patients are nearing the ends of their lives, they should be given compassionate and supportive love.

My heart hurts for the people who are suffering so much that they are faced with this choice. Patients who are suffering like this deserve to know that it is a privilege to care for them, never a burden. The next time I walked into the hospital, I didn’t smell the iodoform. I didn’t notice how pale white the walls were. All I focused on was my grandmother. I focused on her soft wrinkly smile. I focused on showing her the love that she deserves.


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