Is the role of a medical professional to ensure the health and comfort of their patients, or to help them end their lives? Since Dr. Kevorkian assisted in the suicide of Janet Adkins in 1990, physician-assisted suicide (PAS) has been one of the most controversial issues in the medical field today. While some view it as an individual right, others view it as an unethical issue that goes against medical ethics and religious values. Mr. H. M. is an elderly man who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and no chance of improvement. After excruciating pain and suffering, he has decided to request physician-assisted death in his home state of Oregon. Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act (DDA) states that terminally ill patients are allowed to use lethal medications prescribed by the physician to terminate their lives.3 There is a renowned tradition in medicine that health-care professionals must do everything in their power to keep a patient alive, thus making PAS inconsistent with the responsibility of doctors as healers. Although physician-assisted suicide is proposed as a means toward a more gentle and humane way of dying, it threatens the foundation of the medical profession’s ethical integrity.
Assisted suicide is when the physician provides a competent patient with lethal drugs or some other medical means while aware the patient is contemplating suicide. Unlike euthanasia, it is the patient that ultimately determines the outcome of the medicine.6 Many confuse assisted suicide with palliative treatment that may accelerate a patient’s death, also known as the double effect. However, palliative treatment is used to strictly alleviate a patient’s pain and suffering, not to end the patient’s life. Death is only a possible side effect of the treatment, making it ethically acceptable for a physician to increase a patient’s prescription as long as it relieves his or her pain and suffering.3
Those who support physician assisted suicide claim that denying a patient’s request for suicide is denying his or her right to autonomy.5 By allowing patients the right to refuse medical treatment, health-care professionals have recognized the patient’s right to autonomy on issues regarding their medical care even if it results in death. Although a patient’s choice of suicide symbolizes an expression of self-determination, there is a great distinction between denying life-sustaining treatments and demanding life-ending treatments. The right to self-determination is a right to allow or reject offered treatments, not to choose what should be offered. The right to refuse life-sustaining interventions does not correlate with a right to force others to hasten their death. The inability of physicians to inhibit death does not mean that physicians are allowed to help induce death.
Religion plays an important role in the issue of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Most of the major world religions are against suicide in all forms, even in the cases of pain and...