What would you say a physician does? Chances are, your response would have something to do with healing people who are sick. Would you think about describing doctors as people who readily expedite death for their patients? There are currently three states that have legalized physician assisted suicide (PAS), and there are at least twenty-two others, plus the District of Columbia, who are considering it. Most of our knowledge on the topic of PAS comes from the media, which focuses on young, beautiful women with a terminal illnesses, such as Brittany Maynard.
Unfortunately, there is a lot more to the PAS debate than most people realize. Most of the people who are impacted by PAS are not young women; rather, the average age of people who have used legalized suicide in Oregon is 72. The impact that this law could have on the elderly is something the public needs to become more aware of.
Legalizing physician assisted suicide could have many unintended side effects if passed in more states. To begin with, this law implies that some lives are more valuable than others. It tempts us to view elderly or disabled people as burdens rather than loved ones. Once the family of a sick elderly person views him as a burden, the sick individual will begin to view himself that way as well. If terminally ill people view their own lives as a burden on their family members, they will see PAS as an obligation rather than an option.
Nearly 40 percent of PAS victims cited being a burden on family, friends, and caregivers as their motivation for suicide.
Unfortunately, feeling like a burden isn’t the only reason these sick people resort to PAS. Some of them are actually pressured to take this route by those around them. Some caregivers may pressure ill family members to use PAS as they feel caring for them has become a burden on their lives or on their wallets.
For instance, one wife pressured her husband to use PAS by threatening to put him in a home for the chronically ill so that she would no longer have to care for him. Not only are patients pressured by loved ones and caregivers, but the terminally ill are also pressured by insurance companies. In 2008, the state sponsored health plan in Oregon denied recommended but costly cancer treatments; however, they offered to pay for less expensive suicide drugs.
There are some safeguards put into place in order to prevent PAS from having such negative side effects, but regrettably these safeguards are not so safe. The law requires that the sick person request PAS twice verbally and once in writing. There must be two witnesses on each of these occasions to make sure the person is making a sound request. Unfortunately, those witnesses can include a person who stands to inherit upon the patient’s death or the owner of the healthcare facility who may be looking for cost effective methods.
Another requirement of the law is that a doctor approves the request for suicide by confirming that the person has less than six months to live. This doctor does not need to be one that has worked extensively with the patient. In fact, one PAS advocacy group claims to keep a list of doctors who are “willing and able to get patients around any pesky safeguards.” Finally, once the person is actually prescribed the pills, there are no safeguards left in place.
No one has to be present to confirm that the patient took the pills willingly and while mentally competent. Clearly, safeguards are not enough to protect the terminally ill if PAS becomes legal in more states. The only way to protect these people is to make sure doctors are not allowed to prescribe lethal drugs to their patients.
Many states are currently reviewing legislation to allow physician assisted suicide. The public needs to become more aware of the consequences of passing these laws. We need to remember that all lives are valuable, not just the healthy ones.