Physician Assisted Suicide
There have been arguments on whether physician assisted suicide is morally permissible. Physician assisted suicide, which is a process in which a medical doctor prescribes a lethal dose of medication to an ailing patient upon their request so that they may end their lives, should be legalized because it is moral. Plato recommended that those who are sick should be abandoned and left to die (Golden & Zoanni, 2010). The moral aspect of physician-assisted suicide is that rather than subjecting patients to suffering it was better to relieve them of the pain by helping them to commit suicide.
Physician assisted suicide is currently legal in Montana, Washington, Vermont and Oregon. In these states, it is a legal requirement that before engaging in physician-assisted suicide, the doctor must diagnose a terminally ill patient as having a life expectancy of not more than six months. The law also requires this confirmation from another doctor to ensure that the diagnosis is valid. It is a legal requirement that patients request for the lethal prescription at least twice verbally and in written form before waiting for at least two weeks between their first and their last request. It is also a legal requirement for the doctor to gauge the level of mental competence of the patient requesting for the lethal prescription. In states such as Vermont, there are additional restrictive measures such as the requirements that doctors in the state only prescribe lethal medication to state residents. In addition, when making these requests, the law requires the presence of two impartial people as witnesses (Golden & Zoanni, 2010).
Utilitarianism is an ethical school of thought that can be used in understanding the moral and legal aspects of physician-assisted suicide. The utilitarian approach, which is an innovative conception of morality developed by Jeremy Bentham, focuses on engaging in activities that increase happiness while decreasing suffering and pain as much as possible. From the utilitarian approach, it would be possible to argue that, physician assisted suicide is morally acceptable because it contributes to the reduction of the suffering of the patient, family members, caretakers and friends of the patient. Proponents of this ethical school of thought argue that it is important to recognize values such as individual rights, freedom, and justice. For states engaged in the legalization of physician-assisted suicide, the objective is often to protect the rights of patients and uphold the principle of justice (Golden & Zoanni, 2010). These states argue that denying patients the right of deciding when to die is in fact denying them their freedom. In the case of physician-assisted suicide, the utilitarian ethical approach would assert that when terminally ill patients are kept alive only experience painful and slow deaths, there is an increase in the levels of suffering for those involved. Instead of embracing a radical utilitarian approach in which anyone experiencing pain or suffering is killed, it would be prudent to embrace a moderate utilitarian approach that involves a just way of conducting physician-assisted suicide. This is where the process is conducted according to the wishes of a patient whose rights are not violated and by a medical practitioner whose moral convictions cannot be perceived to be operating against the act. Physician assisted suicide in this case alleviates unnecessary suffering for the patient who was deemed to die because of the nature of their illness.
Despite the arguments supporting the moral nature of physician-assisted suicide, there are critics who have argued that involvement of a medical doctor in this act gives him the power of the executioner. This power corrupts his role of a healer and can lead to the violation of the trust existing between a doctor and a patient. According to the opponents of physical assisted suicide, the Hippocratic Oath, which cautions doctors against giving lethal medication to anyone who asks for it or advising a patient to take such medication, is evidence of the ultimate law that prevents doctors from giving lethal drugs. Proponents of physician-assisted suicide assert that developments in medicine should be used in ensuring some transformation of the Hippocratic Oath. This is because in the contemporary society the role of a medical practitioner is to uphold the best interest of the patient there are doctors who believe that it is unethical to help a patient end their suffering by prescribing lethal medication. There are also physicians who believe that it is part of their mandate to respect a patient’s wish of ending his suffering. This is because the end of life is part of the responsbility that a medical doctor accepts when caring for a sick person. According to proponents of physician-assisted suicide, one of the vows that medical doctors make is that of engaging in activities that do not harm the patient. However, if more harm is done by keeping the patient alive against his wishes then it is the duty of the medical doctor to act according to the wishes of the patient and relieve him of suffering (Walsh et al, 2009).
Critics of physician-assisted suicide have argued based on the slippery floor argument and the fear of abuse. According to these critics, by legalizing physician-assisted suicide, the law will open patients to exploitation especially among those suffering from terminal illnesses or disabilities. This means that physical assisted suicide will lead to victimization and devaluation of their lives. An additional effect of such legalization is that terminally ill patients may be included towards physician-assisted suicide due to high medical cost and the burden placed by these costs on their caregivers and families (Walsh et al, 2009). Proponents of physician assisted suicide have argued that the existing laws in states such as Oregon, Vermont, Montana and Washington were developed with the objective of preventing illegal physician assisted suicide and unjustifiable deaths. This explains why the presence of two impartial witnesses, another medical practitioner to confirm the diagnosis and the request is considered necessary. Furthermore, it is also a legal requirement for the doctor to gauge the mental competence of the patient making the decision. The concern that patients will opt for physician assisted suicide because it relives their families of financial burdens is unproven because according to existing data in states such as Oregon, about 4% of patient who request for physician assisted suicide reported financial issues as a major concern (Golden & Zoanni, 2010).
In conclusion, physician assisted suicide has more benefits compared to disadvantages. This is because of the need to respect quality of life, individual rights, and the freedom of deciding how to die. This practice does not cause an unseen death but brings an inevitable death mercifully and quickly. The legal systems of physical assisted suicide serve the role of mitigating fears of possible abuse because the main goal is to reduce unnecessary suffering and allow for a peaceful death for those who never would otherwise.
Golden M., & Zoanni, T. (2010). Killing Us Softly: The Dangers of Legalizing Assisted Suicide.
Disability Health Journal, (3):16–30.
Walsh, D., Caraceni, AT., Fainsinger, R., Foley, K. (2009). Palliative Medicine.1st ed. Canada.
Saunders. Chapter 22, Euthanasia and Physician-AssistedSuicide: p.110-5.