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Written for:
Senior Literature
November 5, 1998

Physician Assisted Suicide

By: Nick Rudat

Physician assisted suicide should be the choice of the person contemplating it. A person who is suffering and wishing to die should not have to fight the state or the court for that right. A person should be allowed to make that choice without harassment or turmoil.

‘Don’t bother having you body shipped home,’ were the last words Mike heard from his family. Although his relatives rejected him when he was a teenager, Mike asked them for help when AIDS began to sap his strength. When they refused he had no place to go. Most of his friends had already died, and he was too sick even to get out of bed without assistance. After a careful consideration of his options, he orchestrated an assisted suicide. For Bob Barret, Ph.D., Mike’s Death is a perfect example of rational suicide (1).

This is a clip from an article written by the freelance writer, Rebecca A. Clay. Physician assisted suicide should be an option that people have just as easily as refusing life-saving procedures. But doctors have to tell terminally ill, suffering patients they did not have the right to help them die, to end their misery and pain. A patient can choose to refuse chemotherapy or dialysis or, even refuse life support. However, if they choose life support they can not change their minds later and ask to pull the plug (Clay 1).

Doctors Timothy Quill, Samuel Klagsburn, and Howard Grossman have had to do just that. As a result, the three of them and their patients sued the state of New York for that right. It was argued that while a competent person has the right to refuse life-sustaining medical treatment, another competent patient does not have the right to seek assistance to kill himself. Dr. Quill brought up that the ban on assisted suicide was violating the Equal Protection Clause. This was because refusing treatment is the same as assisted suicide (Lu 1-2).

Vacco vs. Quill and Washington vs. Glucksburg went before the Supreme Court with the same arguments. It was finally decided that states do not have the right to ban assisted suicide. Justice Sandra Day O’Conner wrote an opinion stating the possibility for physician assisted suicide in extreme cases. It was said that a person in great pain, whose only alternative for painkillers might cause death, should not be banned from help (Lu 2).

Even though pain is a concern of terminally ill people, according to Gary E. McCuen and Cathy Lu, more than 50% are more concerned about dying with dignity. Most patients do not wish to be a burden to their families. Taking this into consideration, it would not be fair to say that the only reason a person wishes to kill himself is because it hurts. Thomas Preston, a doctor at the Pacific Medical Center, said,

When we focus on pain, … what we’re doing is brushing these other things that are just as important [like emotional pain]. This is what the Supreme Court justices have no understanding of. They talk about letting people die naturally, when there is no natural dying these days (Lu 3).

Rebecca Clay wrote that in 1995 a survey done in San Francisco showed that more than half of 118 doctors, who had taken the survey, had prescribed lethal doses of drugs to suicidal patients. These doctors were working with AIDS patients and every patient they had helped die was infected with the AIDS virus. It is well known that there is no cure for the AIDS virus and people who are sick because of advanced damage to the immune system are very weak and have no way to live comfortably (1).

An earlier survey was conducted by James A Werth, Ph.D., in 1994. It showed that of 400 randomly chosen members of the National Register of Health Care Providers in Psychology, 86 percent of the 125 respondents believed in the idea of rational suicide, 20 percent had actually had patients who they thought were rationally suicidal (Clay 1-2).

The members that had responded to the survey were asked to define rational suicide and outline decision-making steps to take when considering physician assisted suicide. Generally there are three basic criteria for a rational suicide. First, the patient would have to be in a hopeless condition. This does include low quality of life and psychological, as well as physical, pain. Second, the patient would have to be free of coercion from friends and family. Third, and possibly most important, the patient should go through some deep thought and decision making (Clay 2).

To elaborate on the meaning of a sound decision making, Clay outlined the responses into a chart.

-The patient should be mentally competent, which eliminates patients with treatable depression and other judgment-clouding impairments;
-The patient should non-impulsively consider other options, such as psychotherapy, antidepressants, assisted living or support groups;
-The decision should be consistent with the patient’s values;
-The patient should consider the impact suicide will have on significant others; and
-The patient should consult with others, such as religious leaders, disability advocates, physical therapists, or hospice personnel.

When a doctor has to make these decisions, they normally have had a long-term doctor-patient relationship with the person requesting help. The doctor would be able to tell if a person should be contemplating suicide. Through this relationship the physician would be able to come to the conclusion that the suicide were either rational or irrational (Clay 3).

However, there are doctors, and people alike, who do not believe in rational suicide at all. Some would say that there is no such thing due to the “fact” that suicide is an irrational alternative no matter what the circumstances. These are the people who believe it is morally right to stick a person on life-support until a cure, or help, can be found. At the same time, the life support would cost the family and government vast amounts of money, even if it means that the person is brain dead, immobile, or unresponsive (Encarta 97).

So what some people are saying is that it is all right to let a person suffer and slowly die. When it would be easy just to help a person out with their choice to die. A person should be given the right to choose a quick, painless death over a slow, agonizing one. If an animal was seriously injured or ill, and there were no ways to help the animal immediately, the animal would be put down, no questions asked. Put when a perfectly logical and mentally capable human being asks for physician assisted suicide, he is either turned down or has to fight for it (Wekesser 24-30).

To understand the difficulty one must go through, here is a list of Assisted Suicide Laws State by State published by Associated Press.

-Currently, 35 states have status explicitly criminalizing assisted suicide.
-Nine states criminalize assisted suicide through common law: Alabama, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina, Vermont, West Virginia
-Three states have abolished the common law of crimes and do not have statutes criminalizing assisted suicide: North Carolina, Utah, Wyoming
-In Ohio, that state’s Supreme Court ruled in October 1996 that suicide is not a crime.
-In Virginia, there is no real clear case law on assisted suicide, nor is there a statue criminalizing the act, although there is a statue which imposes civil sanctions on persons assisting in a suicide.
-Only Oregon permits physician assisted suicide.

Assisted suicide is a very touchy subject. Many people believe it is wrong for various reasons, religion, family beliefs, and personal beliefs. But, just because people think it is a bad thing does not mean that it should be banned from everybody. Suicide is a very personal thing and the choice should be something that is not influenced by the law, the state, or the courts. People should not be made to fight for the right to end their prolonged agonizing suffering with a quick, painless, and merciful death, especially when death is a certainty in the long run.


“Assisted Suicide Laws State by State.” Associated Press. 1998.

Clay, Rebecca A. Is Assisted Suicide Ever a Rational Choice? 1997.

Lu, Cathy. “The Debate over Physician Assisted Suicide.” Human Rights. Volume 24. 1997.

McCuen, Gary E. Doctor Assisted Suicide and the Euthanasia Movement. Wisconsin: Gary E. McCuen Publications Inc, 1994.

“Suicide.” Encarta 97. 1993-1997. CD-ROM. Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia. 1997.

Wekesser, Carol. Euthanasia: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc, 1995.

Grade Received:
98% A

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