When my mother was in her final months, suffering from a heart failure and other problems, she called me to her bedside with a pained expression. She took my hand and asked plaintively, “How do I get out of this mess?”
As a physician, I dreaded the question that might follow: Would I help her end her life by prescribing a lethal drug?
Fortunately for me, my mother tolerated her final weeks at home, with the help of hospice nurses and occasional palliative medication. She never raised the thorny question of what is variously termed “medical aid in dying” or “physician-assisted suicide.”
As a son and family member who has witnessed the difficult final days of parents and loved ones, I can understand why support for MAID/PAS is growing among the general public. But as a physician and medical ethicist, I believe that MAID/PAS flies in the face of a 2,000-year imperative of Hippocratic medicine: “Do no harm to the patient.”
Studies point out that even many doctors who actually participate in MAID/PAS remain uneasy or “conflicted” about it. In this piece, I explore their ambivalence.
In discussing end-of-life issues, both the general public and physicians themselves need to distinguish three different approaches.
MAID/PAS involves a physician’s providing the patient with a prescription of a lethal drug that the patient could take anytime to end life. In contrast, active euthanasia or “mercy killing” involves causing the death of a person, typically through a lethal injection given by a physician. Finally, the term “passive euthanasia” refers to hastening the death of a terminally ill person by removing some vital form of support. An example would be disconnecting a respirator.
Increasing international acceptance
In the U.S. some form of legislatively approved MAID/PAS (but not active euthanasia) is legal in five states and the District of Columbia. In my home state – following a passionate debate – the Massachusetts Medical Society recently decided to rescind its long-held opposition to the practice. MMS has taken a position of “neutral engagement,” which it claims will allow it to “serve as a medical and scientific resource … that will support shared decision making between terminally ill patients and their trusted physicians.”
In a few countries, MAID/PAS has grown increasingly common. In Canada, for example, MAID/PAS was legalized in 2016. In Belgium and the Netherlands, both active euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are permitted by law, even for patients whose illnesses may be treatable, as with major depression; and whose informed consent may be compromised, as in Alzheimer’s disease. In the Netherlands, a proposed “Completed Life Bill” would allow any persons age 75 or over who decide their life is “complete” to be euthanized – even if the person is otherwise healthy.
U.S. physician response
Among U.S. physicians, MAID/PAS remains controversial, but national data point to its increasing acceptance. A report published in December 2016 found 57 percent of doctors agreed that physician-assisted death should be available to the terminally ill – up from 54 percent in 2014 and 46 percent in 2010.
Perhaps this trend is not surprising. After all, what sort of physician would want to deny dying patients the option of ending their suffering and avoiding an agonizing, painful death?
But this question is misleading. Most persons requesting PAS are not actively experiencing extreme suffering or inadequate pain control. Data from the Washington and Oregon PAS programs show that most patients choose PAS because they fear loss of dignity and control over their own lives.
Some physicians feel conflicted
Physicians who carry out assisted suicide have a wide variety of emotional and psychological responses. In a structured, in-depth telephone interview survey of 38 U.S. oncologists who reported participating in euthanasia or PAS, more than half of the physicians received “comfort” from having carried out euthanasia or PAS.
“Comfort” was not explicitly defined, but, for example, these physicians felt that they had helped patients end their lives in the way the patients wished. However, nearly a quarter of the physicians regretted their actions. Another 16 percent reported that the emotional burden of performing euthanasia or PAS adversely affected their medical practice.
For example, one physician felt so “burned out” that he moved from the city in which he was practicing to a small town.
Other data support the observation that MAID/PAS can be emotionally disturbing to the physician.
Kenneth R. Stevens Jr., an emeritus professor at Oregon Health and Science University, reported that for some physicians in Oregon, participation in PAS was very stressful. For example, in 1998, the first year of Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act,” 14 physicians wrote prescriptions for lethal medications for the 15 patients who died from physician-assisted suicide.
The state’s annual 1998 report observed that:
“For some of these physicians, the process of participating in physician-assisted suicide exacted a large emotional toll, as reflected by such comments as, ‘It was an excruciating thing to do … it made me rethink life’s priorities,’ ‘This was really hard on me, especially being there when he took the pills,’ and ‘This had a tremendous emotional impact.’”
Similarly, reactions among European doctors suggest that PAS and euthanasia often provoke strong negative feelings.
Why the discomfort?
As a physician and medical ethicist, I am opposed to any form of physician assistance with a patient’s suicide. Furthermore, I believe that the term “medical aid in dying” allows physicians to avoid the harsh truth that they are helping patients kill themselves. This is also the view of the very influential American College of Physicians.
I believe that the ambivalence and discomfort experienced by a substantial percentage of PAS-participating physicians is directly connected to the Hippocratic Oath – arguably, the most important foundational document in medical ethics. The Oath clearly states:
“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.”
In 5th century BC Greece, Hippocrates was something of a revolutionary in this respect. As the classicist and medical historian, Ludwig Edelstein has pointed out some non-Hippocratic physicians probably did provide poisons to their dying patients, in order to spare them protracted suffering. Hippocrates opposed this practice, though he did not believe that terminally ill patients should be exposed to unnecessary and futile medical treatment.
Palliative care specialist Ira Byock has observed that:
“From its very inception, the profession of medicine has formally prohibited its members from using their special knowledge to cause death or harm to others. This was – and is – a necessary protection so that the power of medicine is not used against vulnerable people.”
Indeed, when patients nearing the end of life express fears of losing control, or being deprived of dignity, compassionate and supportive counseling is called for – not assistance in committing suicide.
To be sure, comprehensive palliative care, including home hospice nursing, should be provided to the subset of terminally ill patients who require pain relief. But as physician and ethicist Leon Kass has put it:
“We must care for the dying, not make them dead.”