Physician-assisted suicide has been a subject of numerous debates for as long as it has been available. Although both euthanasia and PAS strive to relieve the patient of the unbearable pain he feels, the latter is the practice of aiding one with committing suicide rather than deliberately ending someone’s life directly. Currently, PAS is legal in Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, and seven other states in the US (CNN Newsource). Furthermore, it has been legalized in some other countries, such as Switzerland. Many other states and countries have not passed laws that would either decriminalize or legalize the practice, which often means that those seeking PAS will travel in order to receive it.
Unsurprisingly, various scholars, medical professionals, and other groups hold opposing strong opinions on the matter. On the one hand, it can be considered unethical for doctors and nurses to assist their patients with ending their lives instead of fighting for a cure. On the other, some argue that the ability to end one’s life should be a right that every patient has since it is based on the intrinsic freedom of choice that each human has. Although this matter is complex and controversial, this essay argues in favor of Physician-Assisted Suicide for several reasons, including allowing a dignified death, the support by physicians, and statistics on the number of cases.
Arguments Against Physician-Assisted Suicide
Firstly, however, it is important to consider the various arguments against the consideration of PAS as a human right for terminally ill patients and its legalization. A survey that was answered by 470 physicians and nurses in 2013 showed the attitudes of the professionals to PAS and euthanasia, with the majority being reluctant to perform the practice (Zenz et al. 60). The main arguments against Physician-Assisted Suicide can be summarized as it is considered unethical, an act that devalues life, and the risk of its legalization causing an increase in suicides.
Against the Professional Ethics
One of the most prominent arguments against establishing the practice is its seeming disagreement with medical ethics. Some professionals argue that assisting a patient in suicide goes directly against the Hippocratic Oath, which, amongst other things, damages the reputation of doctors in the public eye. According to Professor Camosy, systematic allowance of assisted suicide undermines the view of the medical establishment as “healing and caring” (qtd. in Haigh). Therefore, the legalization of PAS might have long-term repercussions for the medical professionals, harming the trust of the public in the system and potentially pushing them to turn to less effective alternative healing strategies.
Devalues Life and Experiences
Another popular argument against the legalization of PAS stems from the concern of potentially devaluing life and experiences as a concept. Having the option of Physician-Assisted Suicide would normalize ending one’s life, which could potentially damage the view on life as something sacred. Furthermore, it might paint some lives as less valuable, such as those of the elderly, implying that the latter is taking the resources required by younger people (Tomer). This provides an ethical problem, contradicts the 1st amendment, and adds to the existing high risk for the elderly, with people 65 years and older being 50% more likely to commit suicide than young people (Tomer). For these reasons, some deem it unethical for society to accept PAS as common practice.
Might Lead to an Increase in the Suicides
Finally, some might be concerned with the increase in suicides from the availability of the practice. The mental implications of making suicide “socially acceptable” would add to the existing mental stress the modern society experiences today, especially in the global pandemic (Haigh). Therefore, it might cause more people to view suicide as the easier option, even when the symptoms they experience are treatable. Furthermore, the conditions required for the allowance of PAS can be argued to be subjective, as different people experience pain in different ways. It then follows that some people might regard their situation as more extreme than others would in their situation, and with the readily available solution of PAS, refuse further treatment.
Arguments For Physician-Assisted Suicide
Nevertheless, there are numerous arguments in favor of Physician-Assisted Suicide, which appeal both to the rational and the emotional sides of the matter. First and foremost, PAS preserves the autonomy and dignity of the terminally ill patient. Furthermore, it helps relieve the pain in a safe and controlled manner and is supported by many professionals that work with these patients. Moreover, adopting and legalizing PAS would increase the chance that the patients will change their minds while also giving them an opportunity to feel in control.
Would Help Rid of Intolerable Pain
Firstly, some argue that it is not unethical to relieve the suffering those that turn to Physician-Assisted Suicide are in. Instead, it is the only ethical action to provide salvation to the patients that turn to PAS as a last resort. The unnecessary pain that cannot be treated should be ended in the only other possible way, by ending one’s life (Shibata 155). Furthermore, denying PAS might lead to the patient dying slowly and painfully, which would mean extending the unnecessary pain (Shibata 156). On the other hand, providing the patients with no hope of being treated with PAS would lead to a utilitarian decrease in suffering.
Furthermore, it might relieve the mental strain on the patients that expect to be in pain for a long time, as they would know that they always have an alternative option. Having the option to end their lives in a safe and controlled way might assist them in accepting their fate and prepare them for the inevitable. Being terminally ill is both physically and mentally straining, and not in the last place because of the feeling of being a burden the patients might have. Many seriously ill patients will have families and loved ones worried about them and giving these patients the option to end their lives might make them feel more at peace.
Allows the Patients to Remain in Control of Their Lives
Moreover, making this decision about their lives preserves the autonomy of the patients even at their most critical health. Feeling in control of their lives, the patients might experience a rise in morale, as well as improved mental health. Shibata argues that autonomy and self-determination are amongst the individual’s rights, which would make it the patient’s right to request PAS (156). Furthermore, sometimes the patients simply need to know that they have the option, and even after being prescribed the necessary drugs, they might choose not to take them. Psychologically speaking, providing an individual with an escape tactic does not necessarily mean that he will follow it. However, it will make the individual feel less helpless in the situation that they are in. According to Shibata, loss of autonomy was listed as the top concern of the people opting for PAS, suggesting that the lack of such an option might lead people to undertake actions resulting in suicide anyway (163). Therefore, it is vital to prevent the desperate actions of those feeling helpless and out of control by providing them with the choice to request PAS.
Loss of dignity is another highly rated reason for choosing PAS, according to Shibata (163). People that are at the end of their life path often must endure undignified existence, often unable to control their bodily functions and to require assistance at all times of the day. As quoted by Weber-Guskar, dignity is breached when individuals are “treated as if they have no say in what may be done to them” (136). Denial of PAS does exactly that, as it denies the patients the choice to end their own suffering. People that are already largely dependent on the actions of the medical professionals and their families can be argued to deserve the last opportunity to express their desires.
During the global pandemic especially, many of the people confined to hospitals have been forced to die in isolation, with no contact with their loved ones. Being in control of when one might leave this world can allow patients to say their goodbyes and leave in a dignified way. Dr. Jeff Gardere of Weston advocates for the passing of the law that would allow PAS, as he believes that people should not be “lulled into the fallacy of a false sense of security” (qtd. in Haigh). What Dr. Weston argues is that the end of life might come at any point, not just for the traditionally expected elderly deaths, and it is essential to have options. Numbers of Suicides Do Not Increase
Lastly, the concern that the number of suicides will increase with the legalization of PAS is, although reasonable, easily dismissed. Those states that have allowed the systematic assisted suicide state that the conditions for the granting of PAS include three requests and a guarantee that the patient has less than six months left to live (CNN Newsource). Furthermore, the patient is required to have two witnesses to his or her decision, and the patient’s sanity must be determined (Shibata 161). These strict rules mean that only some patients are eligible for the practice, and, as mentioned above, some choose not to proceed with taking the prescribed pills after receiving them. As can be seen from the statistics, in various states that have legalized PAS, the number of people that have received the necessary medication is higher than the number of consequent deaths (CNN Newsource). Furthermore, the people that request PAS are usually those that have exhausted all other possibilities. Therefore, it is evident that there are numerous fail-safe measures in place that aim to prevent the abuse of PAS.
Overall, it is vital to recognize the freedom of choice that terminally ill patients have, as well as the practical benefits from legalizing PAS. Preserving the autonomy of the patients, even those that are terminally ill, is essential in demonstrating that no life is more valuable than another. Furthermore, knowingly extending the suffering of the individual is unethical, and relieving this pain should be regarded as a continuation of the medical help doctors and nurses provide. Moreover, denying patients assisted suicide will likely not prevent them from committing it themselves, perhaps by traveling to another state. Therefore, ethical and practical considerations of PAS are conclusively in favor of legalization.
Zenz, Julia, et al. “Palliative Care Professionals’ Willingness to Perform Euthanasia or Physician Assisted Suicide.” BMC Palliative Care, vol. 14, no. 58, 2015, p. 60.
Shibata, Benjamin. “An Ethical Analysis Of Euthanasia And Physician-Assisted Suicide: Rejecting Euthanasia And Accepting Physician Assisted Suicide With Palliative Care.” Journal of Legal Medicine, vol. 37, 2017, pp. 155-166.
Weber-Guskar, Eva. “Deciding with Dignity: The Account of Human Dignity as an Attitude and its Implications for Assisted Suicide.” Bioethics, vol. 34, 2020, pp. 135-141.
Haigh, Susan. “COVID-19 Raised in Latest Physician-Assisted Suicide Debate.” U.S. News, 2021.
CNN Newsource. “Physician-Assisted Suicide Fast Facts.” ABC 17 News, 2021.
Tomer, Adrien, editor. Death Attitudes and the Older Adult: Theories Concepts and Applications. Routledge, 2018.