Physician-Assisted Suicide: The Stories Behind the Issue
by Carrie Gordon Earll
Supporters of physician-assisted suicide often tell emotive stories of terminally ill patients who ask a doctor to help them die. These stories communicate that an early, premeditated death is the best, and perhaps the only option for the patient. However, a growing number of medical professionals who work with dying patients are speaking out to dispute this perception that early death is the best solution.
Consider these statements:
“If we treat their depression and we treat their pain, I’ve never had a patient who wanted to die.” —Dr. William Wood, clinical director of the Winship Cancer Center at Emory University in Atlanta, Time April 15, 1996 pg. 82
“In my clinical practice, I have been asked by suffering patients to aid them in death because of severe pain. I have had the opportunity to see these requests for aid in death fade with adequate pain control, psychological support, provision of family support, and with the promise that their symptoms would be controlled throughout the dying process.”
—Kathleen Foley, MD serves as Chief of the Pain Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and as director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Cancer Pain Research and Education. In April of 1996, Dr. Foley made the preceding statement before the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution in Washington D.C., a Congressional subcommittee investigating physician-assisted suicide.
“There is a legacy that reverberates beyond a last breath, depending on how, one way or another, those last days were faced. I treated a young man with AIDS who begged for me to help him die. His religiously fundamentalist family was appalled with him. So much was unspoken, unsettled. Gradually the hospice team was able to bring them together, and to see that father gently bathing his son was nothing short of a miracle. Just think about that for a moment. It’s all right there, the moment of truth. This man died in peace, and his family will always know they had loved him, something that wouldn’t have happened if I or some other doctor had listened to his request to die.”
—Montana hospice physician Ira Byock as published in The New York Times Magazine, July 21, 1996
“We already know enough now to manage virtually all cases of malignant pain successfully. The widely held belief that pain can be relieved only by doses of morphine so high as to render the patient a zombie is a pernicious myth.”
—Eric Chevlen, MD, Director of Palliative Care at St. Elizabeth Health Center, Youngstown, Ohio. Excerpted from Chevlen’s article entitled “Mock Medicine, Mock Law” published in First Things, June/July 1996 p. 17
“I’ve taken care of 2,000 people who’ve died in my care. I only had two patients out of that whole group who, in a system of good care, where they could count on their nurses and doctors, still wanted to have that option.” —Gerontologist Dr. Joanne Lynn during a panel discussion in WETA-TV’s “Who Plays God?” broadcast, May 3, 1996.
“A few years ago, a young professional in his early 30’s who had acute myelocytic leukemia was referred to me for consultation. With medical treatment, he was given a 25 percent chance of survival; without it, he was told, he would die in a few months.
“His immediate reaction was a desperate preoccupation with suicide and a request for support in carrying it out. he was worried about becoming dependent and feared both the symptoms of his disease and the side effects of treatment. His anxieties about the painful circumstances that would surround his death were not irrational, but all his fears about dying amplified them.
“Many patients and physicians displace anxieties about death onto the circumstances of dying – pain, dependence, loss of dignity, the unpleasant side effects resulting from medical treatment. Once the young man and I could talk about the possibility or likelihood of his dying – what separation from his family and the destruction of his body meant to him – his desperation subsided. He accepted medical treatment and used the remaining months of his life to become closer to his wife and parents. Two days before he died, he talked about what he would have missed without the opportunity for a loving parting.”
—Psychiatrist Dr. Herbert Hendin, Executive Director of the American Suicide Foundation. This statement is an excerpt from Lifesavers, a quarterly newsletter of the American Suicide Foundation, Spring 1995. Carrie Gordon Earll is the Senior Policy Analyst for Bioethics at CitizenLink (an affliate of Focus on the Family) and a fellow with the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.