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The Case for Physician Assisted Suicide

By Derek Humphry

While it is true that we have no control over our births, at least we ought to have control over our deaths. How can we claim to be free people if someone else's morals and standards govern the way we die?

Physician-assisted suicide for an adult who is in a rational state of mind, whose terminal suffering happens to be unbearable despite the best medical efforts, is an idea whose time has come. I'll explain why.

We die differently today from our forebears. In this century, medicine has made tremendous strides towards keeping us healthy and living longer, for which we are all grateful. But modern medicine has not entirely solved the problem of terminal pain, and it certainly never will be able to answer the very personal question of an individual person's quality of life.

Some people can stand more pain than others. Some patients in their dying days suffer distressing symptoms, like loss of bowel control, haemorraging, bedsores, permanent hiccups and so forth. So psychic pain is added to the rest of the problems.

Take note that I have liberally used the word 'some'. Most people die quickly, peacefully, and painlessly. Of that there is no doubt. Physician-assisted suicide is needed for very few dying patients -- probably two percent or less of total deaths.

But, two points:

  • You or I could be in that two percent;

  • If we're not included, then we should have the decency to speak up for those who unluckily are.

As I said, we die differently nowadays. There is the scourge of AIDS, which in some cases is a terrible death. More of us die of degenerative diseases like A.L.S. (motor neuron disease), Parkinson's, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzeheimer's Disease, and Osteoporosis. These wasting diseases take years to run their course -- sometimes 10 to 15. Our grandparents knew very little of such diseases because they died earlier.

Two out of every five of us is going to die from a degenerative disease.

Knowledge gives choice

At my present age of 69, I can remember when as a young man we took the word of doctors and nurses as gospel. They knew better. We had almost no medical informational sources. But you've probably noticed that things are different nowadays.

Television and radio programs graphically describe health matters; books and magazines on medical and psychological affairs are big sellers; and non-medical persons can attend conferences and workshops about their special subject.

With the empowerment of better knowledge, we nowadays make more decisions for ourselves. Of course, working intelligently with our medical advisors to come to the best decision for our case remains important. But we live in a more autonomous age; gone are the days when the doctor 'played God'.

Some terminal pain is managed well, but the medical literature is full of examples where it is not. Sometimes it is medical ignorance through sloppy training, occasionally carelessness due to overwork, and in a few cases indifference by second-rate doctors. There are rare instances where a request for physician-assisted suicide is justified in being made because of intractable pain, and that's why an appropriate law is necessary.

Sometime in the next century, laws will be altered to permit voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide -- at least in western countries. In my view, supporters of this concept should constantly work in whatever way they can for such important reforms.

© Copyright 1995, Derek Humphry. All rights reserved.

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