Profits, policies, and laws often displace focus from the most important aspect in the increasingly complicated world of medicine: the patient. Ultimately, patients must have the freedom to choose the care they receive or do not receive. Physician assisted euthanasia is an ethically controversial issue, but one that must be addressed. Legalizing physician assisted euthanasia increases patient autonomy and enables physicians to ensure comfort until the patient’s death.
There are two means by which a healthcare provider may be involved in a patient’s choice to end his or her life. The first, voluntary euthanasia, occurs when a physician ends a patient’s life at the patient’s explicit request. The second scenario, physician assisted suicide, occurs when a doctor assists his or her patient in refraining from life-saving treatment. In both cases, the cause and effect are identical: a patient explicitly communicates his or her request and the physician refrains from resuscitation or actively aids in euthanasia via lethal medication.
One of the possible reasons for opposing physician assisted euthanasia is religion. For religiously active individuals, choosing to end one’s own life or participating in ending a life may be seen as immoral. To address this issue, a study in 2006 surveyed a number of individuals of varying faiths. It found that the leaders of several religions, including Protestantism and Catholicism, are adamantly against euthanasia, but affiliates of these religions are slowly liberalizing in favor of legalization.
The purpose of physician assisted euthanasia is not to reduce healthcare costs or the numbers of terminally ill patients in hospitals. Legalization would first and foremost provide an additional choice to patients in unacceptable amounts of pain. Statistics from regions with legalized physician assisted euthanasia report that it is not, and has not been, a common request. In Oregon, one of the two states in America in which physician assisted euthanasia is legal, only one in a thousand patients choose the option. In the Netherlands, where the choice has been available for thirty years, a steady percentage of patient deaths per year, approximately 0.3%, have been attributed to physician assisted euthanasia. Although not a popular option, for good reason, physician assisted euthanasia is an extremely important option available to patients.
In regions where physicians are legally restricted from this practice, patients still actively seek other last resort options. Patients are allowed to drastically increase pain medications, which may hasten death but ultimately alleviate intolerable levels of pain, or forego life-sustaining therapy. In one case, an elderly patient with severe back and leg pain chose to cease eating and drinking for eleven days after breaking his hip and experiencing excruciating pain. Despite the patient’s request for a euthanizing medication, his physician could not provide the service. When laws interfere with patient autonomy, the laws need to be changed.
In the Netherlands, a study revealed that only 23% of a random sample of 1,960 members of the general public did not support patients’ rights to physician assisted euthanasia. In addition, members of the public provided multiple statements supporting physician assisted euthanasia. They state that it is “not part of everyday practice,” and that, “it happens in the most careful way.” If the United States established a law similar that of the Netherlands, two physicians would need to agree that the patient was suffering from unbearable pain and that euthanasia was the patient’s request. These crucial precautions safeguard against miscommunications that could potentially end an individual’s life.
As with other medical policies, there is always a fear of heightened risk groups. In this case, there is a possibility that specific groups may turn to physician assisted euthanasia despite other available options. The only patients to display heightened risk thus far are AIDS patients. Other groups studied, including the elderly, the uninsured, the physically disabled, the poor, and minorities did not display any heightened risk. With this knowledge, physician assisted euthanasia can still be legalized with special attention focused on AIDS patients.
Allowing patients to request a comfortable, dignified, and painless death would be a major step forward in the medical field. All studies provide evidence in favor of legalizing physician assisted euthanasia and increasing patient autonomy. Physicians should not provide substandard or minimal care because they fear malpractice lawsuits; they should offer the most options to patients and allow them to decide their treatment course. Legalizing euthanasia opens one extremely important choice for patients and prevents them from living their last days in physical or psychological pain.
If there are any questions or concerns about the facts and numbers in this post, please leave a comment.