Do we have the right to decide whether we live or die? When asked in a simple context the answer seems easy but add illness, doctors and family to the mix and things aren’t as clear cut. Does a patient who is suffering from pain and illness have the right to end their life with the help of a doctor? Answering that question is a little more difficult as ethics and legalities come into play. When discussing the everlasting debate over legalizing the practice of physician- assisted suicide I believe every patient has the right to choose between life and death if they can no longer benefit from standard methods of treatment.
In their book, Physician- Assisted Suicide -The Anatomy of a Constitutional Law Issue, Susan Behuniak and Arthur Svenson define Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) as a medical practice that involves a physician assisting a terminally ill, competent adult in dying by writing a prescription for a lethal dose of a drug that will be self administered by the patient. (Behuniak & S.M, 2003, p. 1)
This is not to be confused with euthanasia in which the doctor would administer the lethal drug to end the patient’s life, a practice that is illegal in the United States. In PAS a patient would be prescribed a medication in which they would physically take themselves after undergoing the proper evaluation as outlined by state legislature and receiving clearance. This decision can only be made by the patient, not the family, not the doctor. Currently only Oregon, Washington and Montana have legislation in favor of PAS but the debate continues worldwide about what constitutes ending a life and is it ethical for a physician to assist in doing so.
Before Montana had legislation in favor of Physician- Assisted Suicide, Robert Baxter, a Montana native, was a perfect example of why everyone should have the right to choose. At age 76, Baxter suffered from lymphatic leukemia and after months of suffering, wanted to die. This was prior to Montana passing any legislation in favor of PAS and therefore Baxter’s doctors did what they were obligated to do, they kept him alive until he passed away on his own. An article written by Kirk Johnson for the New York Times, reports that Baxter claimed his rights under the Montana Constitution were violated when the doctor refused to help him die. (Johnson, 2009) The debate began and in 2010 Montana became the third state to legalize Physician Assisted Suicide with the grounds that the decision is that of the individual, not the government.
A common argument against PAS legislation is that doctors are supposed to save lives and it is unethical for them to participate in an act that opposes what they are supposed to stand for. However, when I think of a doctor I think of someone who will take care of me and have my best interest, even if that interest is dying when all other treatment is exhausted. Society, including nurses and doctors, need to have respect for autonomy. The decision about when enough is enough is personal and can only be made by the patient. A person who is terminally ill deserves to make choices for themselves as they would if they were well. The right to be independent and make choices shouldn’t end when you enter the hospital.
Legalizing Physician Assisted Suicide doesn’t mean that anyone who is treated by a physician can request aid in ending their life. Behuniak and Svenson outline the Oregon Death with Dignity Act which describes the process a patient must undergo before they are even given the choice of PAS. For example, a patient must undergo counseling to ensure that they are in a mental state to make the decision, they must be informed about their prognosis and risk of taking medication and they must have a terminal disease that will produce death within six months. (Behuniak & S.M, 2003, p. 29)
If a patient has been properly informed and is mentally stable when making the decision then doctors or legislation don’t have the