physician-assisted suicide. Physician-assisted suicide is an emotional issue that is flooding the news with the current Terri Schiavo situation in Florida. When is physician-assisted suicide warranted, and who makes the terribly difficult decision to "pull the plug?" Physician-assisted suicide is controversial, but it can be the most humane option for many terminally ill patients who have no hope of recovery. Physician-assisted suicide should be an option for ill Americans. It is their life, and they should be able to choose when to live, and when the pain and illness are too much to bear. As Americans, it seems we are more humane with our family pets, than we are with our relatives and loved ones. We know when an animal suffers the most humane thing to do is end its' suffering with euthanasia, yet we cannot allow our friends and loved ones to make the same choice.
Physician-assisted suicide is not a new concept or subject for debate. Suicide itself has always been a controversial and emotional subject. The Bible talks about suicide, and it has been seen as a sin or an "easy" way out for centuries. One writer on physician-assisted suicide notes, "Over the centuries, these judgments have shifted along with the ethical values of the age. No kind of death has elicited such dramatically changing convictions as death by suicide and assisted suicide" (Woodman 25). Physician-assisted suicide has captured the modern media's attention for many years, with a leading proponent, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, making headlines for helping terminally ill patients commit suicide. Dr. Kevorkian is currently serving time in prison for his role is physician-assisted suicide. One author who interviewed Kevorkian quotes him as saying,
Euthanasia wasn't of much interest to me until my internship year, when I saw firsthand how cancer can ravage the human body. The patient was a helplessly immobile woman of middle age, her entire body jaundiced to an intense yellow-brown, skin stretched paper-thin over a fluid-filled abdomen swollen to four or five times normal size. The rest of her was an emaciated skeleton: sagging, discolored skin covered her bones like a cheap, wrinkled frock' (Palmer 62).
Clearly, this experience helped Kevorkian decide to help terminally ill patients end their lives later in his career.
Briefly, physician-assisted suicide is markedly different from euthanasia. In physician-assisted suicide, the physician prescribes or acquires a lethal dose of drugs, and the patient administers them. In euthanasia, the physician themselves would administer the lethal dose of drugs. Most Americans are familiar with euthanasia because it is quite commonly used to put pets "to sleep" if they are old, infirm, or injured. Often, people confuse the two terms, and believe physician-assisted suicide is euthanasia. The major legal problem with physician-assisted suicide is that it is illegal in most states. Committing suicide is not illegal in this country, but helping someone commit suicide is. Only one state, Oregon, has a "Death with Dignity" act that allows certain forms of physician-assisted suicide.
What is the scope of the problem of physician-assisted suicide in the country? No one really knows, because the practice is illegal, and if a doctor covertly helped a patient commit suicide, it would not make sense for them to acknowledge it. It is known that Dr. Kevorkian has acknowledged helping at least 130 terminally ill patients commit suicide, and other doctors have also acknowledged their role in physician-assisted suicides, such as Dr. Timothy Quill. It is not known just how prevalent the problem is, but according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), over 2.4 million people died in America in 2002, (the latest statistics available). Of these, 696,947, or 28.5% died of heart disease, (the leading cause), and 557,271, or 22.8% died of malignant neoplasms, or cancer (the second leading cause) (Anderson and Smith). It is quite likely that many of these terminally ill patients might have chosen the option of physician-assisted suicide had it been available to them.
While the practice of physician-assisted suicide is still not acceptable to many people in this country, the practice of acknowledging a living will is quite common. When a person creates a living will, they note that they do not want to be kept on life-support if their prognosis is terminal. Two doctors from the University of Washington note, "When a competent patient makes an informed decision to refuse life-sustaining treatment, there is virtual unanimity in state law and in the medical profession that this wish should be respected" (Braddock and Tonelli). Thus, it is a fairly common practice in the medical profession to "pull the plug" on life-sustaining equipment if the patient's wishes are known and recorded. That is the main problem with the Terri Schiavo case in Florida. Schiavo's husband maintains she would not want to be kept alive in a "vegetative state" as she is, and her parents disagree. Because there was no living will in her case, the debate can continue until one or the other family members prevail. Living wills are important legal documents, but even with living wills, physician-assisted suicides raise different legal, ethical, and moral questions.
Most people oppose physician-assisted suicide on moral or ethical grounds, and there is also the legal aspect that frightens many physicians who might otherwise consider it in certain cases. In fact, the American Medical Association argues against the practice on ethical grounds, feeling it "undermines the integrity of the profession" (Braddock and Tonelli). Ethically and morally, many religious groups have strong beliefs against committing suicide. The Catholic Church has been extremely outspoken against the practice, and many other groups argue against it on the moral ground that it is always wrong to help another take their own life. Writer Woodman notes, "There can be no individual right to die in cultures dominated by powerfully opposed religions: Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, Mormonism, Islam" (Woodman 47). Thus, the idea of legalizing physician-assisted suicide faces tough opposition, but there are many lucid and reasonable reasons for Americans to legalize the practice.
The problems and controversy surrounding physician-assisted suicide will not simply disappear. One expert in the topic notes, "Since 1992, bills have been introduced to legalize assisted suicide or euthanasia in  various state legislatures, including Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, [...] and Washington. All have failed -- so far" (Gorsuch 599). Oregon narrowly passed their bill in 1994, but it took three years of legal maneuvers for it to actually take effect, and they are still the only state in the nation to allow "death with dignity" in certain situations. The Oregon law only allows physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients (Gorsuch 599).
In 1997 the Supreme Court ruled against physician-assisted suicide as a Constitutional issue. They believed it should be a state-by-state issue, and that is what it has been so far. However, this controversial issue will not simply go away, and more states are going to have to rule on the issue, especially as more people contemplate the long lasting ramifications of the Schiavo case. Physician-assisted suicide should be legalized in this country for a number of reasons. First, it is a humane way for a person to die, much more humane that the current practice of keeping terminally ill patients alive, managing their pain with a cocktail of drugs, and maintaining their lives but certainly not their lifestyle or quality-of-life. Most people who have watched a friend or loved one die a slow, agonized death from cancer or other debilitating diseases understand all too well the ramifications of the right to die issue. Patients with many diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's, and many others, face no hope of a cure. Their condition usually deteriorates until they are simply bedridden and in constant pain, until they are kept "alive" by breathing machines, feeding tubes, and kept doped with increasingly larger doses of pain medications. Most people simply do not want to survive that way if "life" comes to that. Watching a loved one suffer is never easy. It is even harder knowing there is nothing you can do to ease their suffering, even if they choose to end it. While this is certainly an emotional and extremely difficult decision, most patients can make it before their disease progresses to the point that they are no longer rational.
Another argument for allowing physician-assisted suicide is its acceptance in other areas of the world, which indicate that it is not damaging and can be managed effectively. The practice is fairly common in Europe, and quite widespread in the Netherlands, where it has been an accepted medical practice for over twenty years. There are several stipulations that physicians must adhere to, however. In 1984, the Dutch Medical Association established guidelines for assisted suicide. Physicians must ask the patient to put their request for assisted suicide in writing. They must submit a formal notification of the procedure to the local medical officer, and they must consult with two independent colleagues (Woodman 45). These guidelines ensure both physician and patient safety, and also ensure…