Euthanasia, Physician-assisted Suicide and Our Aged and Frail Population
Is the attitude of Americans toward the old and frail evolving into the attitude indicated in the following episode? In Indiana, a nurse suspected of killing as many as 100 people is on trial, charged in the deaths of seven elderly patients. Orville Lynn Majors Jr., 38, began serving as a licensed practical nurse in a Clinton, Indiana hospital in 1993; months later, other nurses observed an abnormally high death rate in the hospital's intensive care unit whenever Majors was on duty. On one occasion Majors was found, syringe in hand, at the bedside of a woman who had died unexpectedly; the patient had been scheduled for discharge the next day, and an autopsy suggested that an injection of potassium caused her death. Autopsies on other patients uncovered enough evidence to go to trial in seven cases. A statistical study showed there was a patient death in the ICU every 23 hours when Majors was on duty, but every 552 hours when he was not; however, statistical evidence was barred from the trial. Reportedly Majors had also told others that he thinks elderly people are "a waste" [New York Times, 8/31].
Numerous US studies have established that the Americans most directly affected by the issue of physician-assisted suicide -- those who are frail, elderly and suffering from terminal illness -- are also more opposed to legalizing the practice than others are:
* A poll conducted for the Washington Post on March 22-26, 1996, found 50% support for legalizing physician-assisted suicide (Washington A18) Voters aged 35-44 supported legalization, 57% to 33%. But these figures reversed for voters aged 65 and older, who opposed legalization 54% to 38%. Majority opposition was also found among those with incomes under $15,000 (54%), and black Americans (70%).
* An August 1993 Roper poll funded by the Hemlock Society and other euthanasia supporters indicated that voters aged 18-29 supported "physician-aided suicide" 47% to 35%; voters aged 60 and older opposed it 45% to 35%. Hemlock's newsletter commented that "the younger the person, the more likely he or she is to favor this legislation." The newsletter added that "this is somewhat at odds with how Hemlock views its membership," since it sees itself as defending the interests of elderly citizens. (Humphry; Poll 9) A study of cancer patients found that terminally ill patients experiencing significant pain are more opposed to physician-assisted suicide than other terminally ill patients or the general public. The patients who did tend to favor assisted suicide were those who had been diagnosed with clinical depression. The researchers commented: "Patients with pain do not seem to view euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide as the appropriate response to poor pain management. Indeed, oncology patients in pain may be suspicious that if euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide are legalized, the medical care system may not...