As society advances, so does its medical practices. We are more technologically and scientifically advanced now than we have ever been before. With these advances, comes the question of how we implement these technologies into our daily lives. Practices that were once considered taboo are now being considered in a different light. One such practice is that of physician assisted suicide. Physician assisted suicide is defined as a type of mercy killing where the physician informs the patient how to kill themselves and may even provide them with the drugs or means to allow the patient to commit the act (Ahmed, 2017). The recent spread of open-minded views on social issues has led to a change in the general view on this practice. Ever since the rise of religions in ancient history, physician assisted suicide has been seen “as inconsistent with the human good and with responsibilities to God” (Procon.org, 2013). It wasn’t until the 1900s that some people began to question the outlaw of the practice and advocate for it. However, the advocacy always resulted in defeat. Many universal organizations, national governments, and international figureheads condoned the practice through laws and public announcements. Polls showed that most of the public was also against the practice. However, recently, this mindset has shifted. A recent poll in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that only 65% of people polled were against physician assisted suicide (Anderson, 2013).
The problem is that there is no clear answer as to whether physician assisted suicide should be implemented in medical facilities. It is unclear which “mistakes we fear most- the mistake of prolonging suffering or the mistake of shortening valued life” (Wickline, 2018). Various groups of people differ in which mistake they view to be the worst. This consequently turns into a problem because doctors around the world are unaware as to the correct way to respond to a patient’s plea to die. The laws may tell them one thing, but their personal values contradict this. Not only this, but there is also a problem with the laws themselves. The rules given by the Hippocratic Oath and the Geneva Convention contradict each other and can be interpreted in many ways. This leaves doctors and medical institutions struggling to decide whether the practice is legal or not. This problem affects myriads of people. Some argue it can affect almost everyone at one point because the problem occurs when patients are terminally-ill or aging in a hospital. Everyone dies eventually, and most people become sick towards the end of their lives. Thus, they are the ones affected by this problem because they may feel that they have already lived long enough lives and are ready to leave. However, laws may prohibit them from leaving this world with help of a doctor, forcing them to continue suffering. On the contrary, some patients want to continue fighting for their lives, but feel pressured or uncomfortable with the option of medically-assisted death. Doctors are also affected because they may feel they have to perform or not perform the action against their will and personal values. This problem will not go away on its own. As the rule of life goes, there will always be people who are ill or aging. Thus, it is important to resolve this issue on a global level and decide whether physician assisted suicide should be a possibility or not. In this paper, I will be discussing the two perspectives on physician assisted suicide and whether it should be legalized or not.
One perspective is that physician assisted suicide should not be legalized. This perspective is due to many factors, one of which is cultural. Many simply argue that the practice should not be allowed because it goes against their beliefs. This is due to societal and religious values. Many believe that one cannot choose to die, much less help another die. The idea of “thou shalt not kill,” as found in the Jewish and Christian holy books, is taken very seriously by many cultures, even those that aren’t very religious. A study conducted in South Africa showed that religious affiliation plays a large role in a person’s opinion on physician assisted suicide (Jacobs & Hendricks, 2018). The study consisted of a questionnaire given to medical students inquiring on whether they believe physician assisted suicide should be legalized in South Africa. The results showed that 87% of agnostics and 100% of those who didn’t list a religious affiliation believed that the practice should be legalized. This is significantly larger to those who did list a religious affiliation: only 52.3% of Christians and 57.1% of Hindus agreed with legalizing the practice. This study was published in June 2018, making it very recent, and thus relevant. It was published in a reputable source: The South African Medical Journal. Both authors are credible since they are professionals who work in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. A strength of this source is its extensive use of detail to describe all the procedures and results. A weakness of this source is that its sample size is very limited and might not be generalized to the public; its subjects are comprised of only South African medical students.
This perspective against the legalization of physician assisted suicide is also mainly due to the view that the practice is unethical. This is the stance taken by the World Medical Association (2018), which announced that physician assisted suicide, where a doctor intentionally aids in terminating someone’s life, is unethical. The people who support this perspective agree with this statement, claiming that it is unethical to kill someone, regardless of the situation. The Hippocratic Oath, taken by all doctors, as well as books such as the current edition of Principles of Biomedical Ethics describe the fundamental principle of “non-maleficence,” which means causing no harm. Doctors are entrusted to place a patient’s well-being above anything else and are not only legally obligated to this rule, but also morally obligated. Many believe that physician assisted suicide violates this law (Sullivan, D. M., & Taylor, R. M., 2018).
Supporters of this perspective also argue from a political standpoint: legalizing the practice would pave the way for its abuse and misuse, which could be extremely dangerous for society. It would raise a multitude of questions as to how it should be regulated, the trust given to doctors would be diminished, and patients and their families will begin to wonder whether doctors really have their patients’ best interests in mind. These patients may even become to be regarded as disposable, which, in the long run, endangers the weak parts of society, such as the aging population and the terminally-ill. Additionally, many argue that physician-assisted suicide is not even necessary. With today’s modern technology, suffering can be diminished by a multitude of options that do not require ending a patient’s life. Most patients do not experience unbearable suffering towards the ends of their lives. In fact, only a small percentage of terminally-ill patients opt for physician assisted suicide when given the opportunity. Thus, the belief exists that there is no real need to break ethical laws by legalizing physician-assisted suicide (Sullivan, D. M., & Taylor, R. M., 2018).
It is important to note that the previous information was obtained from a credible source. It is an article published in the Volume 34.1 of the Spring 2018 publication of the International Journal of Bioethics. The fact that it was published in an international journal shows it is not tailored to one specific opinion. This is also shown by a strength of the article, which is the impartialness of the writing since it addresses both sides of the debate. It is extremely current, for it was published in 2018. Additionally, both writers are reliable because they have experience in the medical field. Dennis M. Sullivan is the Director of the Center for Bioethics at Cedarville University, meaning he is an expert in medical ethics. Robert M. Taylor also holds a medical doctorate and specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation, meaning he works with many defenseless patients, which are the ones who consider physician assisted suicide.
A contrasting perspective is that physician assisted suicide should indeed be legalized. This is mainly due to the view that the practice is ethical because the physician is helping to relieve a patient’s suffering. Many patients who suffer from terminal illnesses feel that they are a burden to their families and even society. Thus, they often tend to come to the decision that they want their lives to come to an end. Those who agree with this perspective feel it is more inhumane to force a person to keep suffering than to help end their misery. The World Federation of Right to Die Societies (2018) explains that they believe people should have the “right to die with dignity, meaning in peace and without suffering.” Many doctors who have worked with terminally-ill patients agree with this perspective. Two of these doctors recently described their experience in an article published in a professional and reputable source: the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The writers of this article are credible because they are professionals in the medical field: one is a palliative care physician, a doctor who specialized in the care of terminally ill patients, and the other is a cancer psychiatrist. This article is also relevant since it was written in 2018. A strength of this article is that it is a personal account and therefore is more believable. A weakness is that it is biased in the sense that it is purely based on the opinions of the physicians who wrote it. In this article, the physicians describe their personal experience with patients who asked for physician assisted suicide. One physician describes how, by helping her patient die, she felt she helped him cease his suffering in the only way possible. She explains that her patient made the choice to die willingly and happily, claiming that he could finally take control of his own life. Experiences such as this one help support the perspective that physician assisted suicide should be legalized because it is ethical since it helps the patient, not harms them (Li & Kain, 2018).
Others who agree with this perspective argue that, politically, legalizing physician assisted suicide will solve the issue of its current illegal practice. This way, doctors and patients who want to partake in the practice can do so safely and legally. They also add that, unlike the beliefs of those against physician assisted suicide, the law will not be corrupt. There is no real evidence that would back up that claim. On the other hand, evidence does exist to support the argument that legalizing the practice would not result in a “slippery slope” of corruption: similar “slippery slope” fears were evident before legalizing other controversial practices such as abortions and living wills, yet there has been no such consequence in any of the countries that have legalized these practices (The World Federation of Right To Die Societies, 2018).
After reflecting on the question of whether physician assisted suicide should be legalized, I believe that the perspective that the practice should not be legalized is most convincing. This is because, after the extensive research I have conducted, I have concluded that legalizing the practice would cause more problems than the ones that already exist. The Hippocratic Oath should be respected in its entirety. A physician should not consider death to be an option for their patient, and work hard to find another solution. Patients should not be encouraged to feel as though they are a burden. More research needs to be done on the right way to treat patients with terminal illnesses. These patients deserve to be treated with upmost respect, so that they don’t feel undignified to the point that they wish to die.