The argument could be made that people just die and there is no real difference but there is a strong difference between a good death and a bad one (Brody, 1992). People that are made to be afraid, to suffer, and to rely solely on others for any kind of care often do not wish to live any longer and these people may linger a very long time in this pain and fear before they pass away. Once they have passed away they have no more suffering but the length of suffering that they must endure during the time between when they get sick and when they actually die is often excruciatingly painful not only for them physically and emotionally but for their families emotional well-being as well. Individuals that are permitted to pass away peacefully and in a dignified manner will be much less likely to take their own lives in any type of cruel or unpleasant way or prolong the suffering of themselves or their families beyond what is necessary to get affairs in order and say final goodbyes to everyone (Battin, 1994).
These individuals will often remain on this earth somewhat longer because they know that the option for physician-assisted suicide is available to them. They know that when the suffering gets to be too much they can take medication and fall asleep and pass away peacefully as opposed to being afraid of what might come and not having anyone to help them get through the final days or hours of their lives. Lately there have been many calls for removing the ban on any type of physician-assisted suicide (Rogatz, 2001). Many people call it euthanasia but it is not exactly the same thing. Euthanasia is something that is done by the physician which specifically ends an individual's life, such as giving that person a lethal injection (Rogatz, 2001). In physician-assisted suicide this is not the case. As has been mentioned, physician-assisted suicide usually involves the use of prescription medication that is only given to the patient in a container.
The physician does not actually administer the drug and it is up to the patient when or even if he or she chooses to take that drug. Not only do these patients that wish to partake of physician-assisted suicide have concerns about their own declining physical and mental abilities but many of them are also concerned about financial burdens that are placed on their family, losing control of what it is that they are able to do with their lives, and being alone and in pain in later years as a disease progresses (Rogatz, 2001).
It has long been a cultural norm that medicine is designed to preserve life for as long as possible (Orentlicher, 1997). However, being alive and having a life are not the same things and the quality of life is often more important to most people than the length. Naturally, most individuals wish to live a long and productive life but if given the choice between having 50 good years of life or 70 years of life where the last part was a struggle, many people would choose to die sooner and have a good death rather than live longer and have a painful life.
It was not all that long ago that individuals were granted the right to ask that life-saving treatments be withheld (Snyder & Sulmasy, 2001). This means that those in cardiac arrest with do-not-resuscitate orders would not receive treatment or those that were on a ventilator and not able to breathe on their own would have their life-support machines turned off. Not everyone agrees with this idea but it is one that has largely been seen as being accepted by most of society and certainly by the medical community.
They are many more physicians today that would utilize physician-assisted suicide for the patients that they see struggling and suffering day after day, sometimes for quite a long time, before their illness finally takes them. However, if these individuals are not able to assist their patients because of the legal ramifications they must only sit by and watch them suffer. Essentially, they are unable to help these patients and this is something that a physician finds extremely difficult, since his or her whole life is supposed to be about helping others. Sometimes these physicians prescribe pain medications and do other things that allow the patient to pass away peacefully but physicians must be extremely careful in the utilization of these types of tactics because if it were found that they had done it deliberately they would likely be removed from practice and prosecuted for murder, despite what the wishes of their patient might have been (Snyder & Sulmasy, 2001).
Although Oregon is the only state that has legalized physician-assisted suicide many other states have looked at bills to legalize it. In all of the other states these bills have been defeated (Snyder & Sulmasy, 2001). Some other countries have also legalized physician-assisted suicide (Thomasma, 1996). In 1997 the United States Supreme Court made a ruling that indicated that there was no constitutional right for an individual to have physician-assisted suicide (Snyder & Sulmasy, 2001). The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, did make a ruling that individuals have the right to choose when and how they wish to die (Snyder & Sulmasy, 2001). Because of this competent and terminally ill individuals who wished for a lethal dose of prescription medication found that they had a right to this because it was unconstitutional to ban them for choosing this particular type of life-ending measure.
It is extremely important that physicians and others look at the reasons why individuals request physician-assisted suicide and work to determine whether these individuals are actually ready for what they are asking. There should be some restraints in physician-assisted suicide because obviously those who are not yet adults or those who are incompetent or severely mentally ill should not be able to make this decision. The question then arises as to whether another individual can make that decision. For example, if a 7-year-old child dying of terminal cancer is in extreme pain and does not want to suffer any more, can the mother or father make a decision to allow physician-assisted suicide for that child? This is only one of the hard questions that will have to be answered if physician-assisted suicide is ever legalized.
I personally think that physician-assisted suicide should be legal in all states because everyone should have the right to choose how and when they wish to die. I also think, however, that there should be specific constraints and guidelines placed on this so that individuals are not taken advantage of and so that there is no chance of allowing this type of procedure for individuals that are not clear on what is that they want or that change their mind quite frequently. Sometimes when individuals are depressed or unhappy with life they feel that it would be better if they were dead. Often this feeling goes away in time and even with those that are terminally ill they sometimes realize that they still have enough quality of life, at least for a while, to keep going and enjoying the time that they have with friends and family.
There is no reason that these individuals should have to die too soon if medication or other measures can help keep them alive and keep them functional. For those that are wasting away and have no control over their physical state anymore, however, and for those that are in extreme pain that has no cure, physician-assisted suicide makes sense. It is a humane practice and often it saves not only the patient but that patient's family and friends a lot of grief and pain. No one wants to see a loved one gets sick and waste away. No one wants a loved one to die, either, but it is less painful to see that individual die with dignity and without pain that it is to watch them suffer through long days and hours. It is for these reasons that I strongly feel physician-assisted suicide, with careful controls, should be legalized throughout the United States.
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Brock, D.W. (1997). Physician-Assisted Suicide Is Sometimes Morally Justified. In Robert F. Weir (ed.), Physician-Assisted Suicide. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Brody, H. (1992). Assisted Death -- A Compassionate Response to Medical Failure. New England Journal of Medicine, 327: 1384-88.
Callahan, D. (1990). What Kind of Life: The Limits of Medical Progress. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
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Kass, L.R. (1993). Is There a right to die? Hastings Center Report 23: 34-43.
Orentlicher, D. (1997). The Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Very Modest Revolution. Boston College Law Review…