Four Problems with Physician-Assisted Suicide

(by Ryan T. Anderson) (PDF Version)
March 30, 2015

The Hippocratic Oath proclaims: “I will keep [the sick] from harm and injustice. I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.”[1] This is an essential precept for a flourishing civil society. No one, especially a doctor, should be permitted to kill intentionally, or assist in killing intentionally, an innocent neighbor.

Human life need not be extended by every medical means possible, but a person should never be intentionally killed. Doctors may help their patients to die a dignified death from natural causes, but they should not kill their patients or help them to kill themselves. This is the reality that such euphemisms as “death with dignity” and “aid in dying” seek to conceal.

In 2015, at least 18 state legislatures and the District of Columbia are considering whether to allow physician-assisted suicide (PAS).[2] Legalizing physician-assisted suicide, however, would be a grave mistake because it would:

  1. Endanger the weak and vulnerable,
  2. Corrupt the practice of medicine and the doctor–patient relationship,
  3. Compromise the family and intergenerational commitments, and
  4. Betray human dignity and equality before the law.[3]

To understand how PAS endangers the weak and marginalized, one must understand what PAS entails and where it leads.

What Is Physician-Assisted Suicide?

With PAS, a doctor prescribes the deadly drug, but the patient self-administers it. While most activists in the United States publicly call only for PAS, they have historically advocated not only PAS, but also euthanasia: the intentional killing of the patient by a doctor.

This is not surprising: The arguments for PAS are equally arguments for euthanasia. Neil Gorsuch, currently a federal judge, points out that some contemporary activists fault the movement for not being honest about where its arguments lead. He notes that legal theorist and New York University School of Law Professor Richard Epstein “has charged his fellow assisted suicide advocates who fail to endorse the legalization of euthanasia openly and explicitly with a ‘certain lack of courage.’”[4]

The logic of assisted suicide leads to euthanasia because if “compassion” demands that some patients be helped to kill themselves, it makes little sense to claim that only those who are capable of self-administering the deadly drugs be given this option. Should not those who are too disabled to kill themselves have their suffering ended by a lethal injection?

And what of those who are too disabled to request that their suffering be ended, such as infants or the demented? Why should they be denied the “benefit” of a hastened death? Does not “compassion” provide an even more compelling reason for a doctor to provide this release from suffering and indignity?[5]

Although the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled in two unanimous decisions that there is no constitutional right to PAS, three states permit it by statute: Oregon, Washington, and Vermont.[6] Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are allowed in three European countries—the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg—and Switzerland allows assisted suicide.[7]

The evidence from these jurisdictions, particularly the Netherlands, which has over 30 years of experience, suggests that safeguards to ensure effective control have proved inadequate. In the Netherlands, several official, government-sponsored surveys have disclosed both that in thousands of cases, doctors have intentionally administered lethal injections to patients without a request and that in thousands of cases, they have failed to report these incidents to the authorities.[8]

Four Problems with Physician-Assisted Suicide

As argued in The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder “Always Care, Never Kill,” physician-assisted suicide is bad policy for four reasons.[9]

First, PAS endangers the weak and marginalized in society. Where it has been allowed, safeguards purporting to minimize this risk have proved to be inadequate and have often been watered down or eliminated over time. People who deserve society’s assistance are instead offered accelerated death.

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