The debate surrounding whether to legalize assisted suicide, or not, rests with evaluating whether it is okay for physicians to help dying patients commit suicide, or not. There are conflicting views regarding this matter. While some people are against assisted suicide for religious reasons and because they are compassionate of the dying, others support it for pragmatic or humanitarian reasons (Quill & Battin, 2004; Bryant, 2003).
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This debate has not only characterized public divisions surrounding assisted suicide but also highlighted the conflicting views of physicians about the same matter. Their views mostly differ on the premise of understanding the merits and demerits of relief from suffering and death (Harned, 2012).
The debate surrounding assisted suicide has gained prominence in the medical community and around the world because of the publicized deaths assisted by medical practitioners, such as Kevorkian, and in part because of the indignity that some patients who suffer from serious and long-term ailments experience (Harned, 2012). This paper evaluates different views surrounding the debate but argues that assisted suicide provides a humanitarian way out of suffering for patients and families.
Arguments against Assisted Suicide
Most of the arguments against assisted suicide have premised on moral, ethical, and religious reasoning (Harned, 2012). For example, most physicians who do not support assisted suicide believe it contravenes the Hippocratic Oath (Bryant, 2003). Others also believe it contravenes some of the principles of the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics, which identify the role of the physician as a healer (Quill & Battin, 2004). The potential lack of mistrust among patients and health care service providers that would arise if the law allows the latter group to take the life of a patient exemplifies this reasoning. A climate of cost-saving measures characterizing most health facilities exemplifies such concerns as well (Harned, 2012).
People who use religious arguments to oppose assisted suicide often say all human life is sacred and, as such, people should treat it as a gift from God (Harned, 2012). Furthermore, people who believe assisted suicide is a wrong approach to managing pain and suffering say it is a “slippery slope” because it would be difficult to determine the extent that pain and suffering warrants death (Bryant, 2003). For example, they ask, whether the same principle should apply to people who suffer from mental illness because such patients also experience the same pain and suffering as patients who suffer from long-term illnesses. Relative to this assertion, Harned (2012) says,
“It will be difficult, if not impossible, to limit physician-assisted suicide to “competent, terminally ill patients.” Individuals who are not competent, who are not terminally ill (but potentially in more pain than a terminally ill patient), or who cannot self-administer lethal drugs will also seek the option of physician-assisted suicide, and no principled basis will exist to deny them this right” (p. 517).
While such arguments have some merit, this paper demonstrates the advantages of assisted suicide outweigh such concerns.
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Why We Should Support Assisted Suicide
Self Determination and Control
The concept of self-determination and control mostly refers to the respect for patients’ will (Quill & Battin, 2004). Based on the suffering and pain associated with some terminal illnesses, some patients often request their physicians to “put them out of their misery” (McLean, 2013). Stated differently, in such situations, they want physicians to help them commit suicide. Bryant (2003) supports this view by saying that “a person should have the right to choose a quick and painless death if he, or she, has an incurable illness and if there is no hope for recovery” (p. 425). Respecting patients’ will is a key component of nursing (patient-centric care). Key figures in the discipline, such as Florence Nightingale, supported this philosophy by encouraging physicians to respect patients’ will.
Quill and Battin (2004) counter the arguments of those who do not support assisted suicide by saying “patients’ wishes and competent consent are ethically more credible than whether people categorize assisted suicide as active, or passive, or whether death is intended, or unintended, by the patient or physician” (p. 139). Based on this argument, there is no reason for applying the philosophy of self-determination and control in different aspects of medical care and not apply it to patients who suffer from a terminal illness or those who want to overcome their misery through death.
Relief from Suffering
Many people who do not want to live a life of suffering and pain are often afraid of living a life of (mere) existence that has lost its meaning. In this regard, it is plausible to assume that if death is inevitable, there is no harm in supporting assisted suicide because it provides a “dignified death.” A study conducted by three researchers, Emmanuel, Fairclough, and Emanuel (cited in Harned, 2012) found that most patients who suffered from terminal illnesses were likely to urge their physicians to recommend assisted suicide. Relative to this assertion, Emanuel, Von Gunten, and Ferris (2009) say,
“Each person will have a unique set of needs and reasons why he or she would like to hasten death. While more research is needed, the available data support a few generalizations. In all surveys, unrelieved psychosocial and mental suffering is the most common stimulus for requests” (p. 2).
Comprehensively, we should accept that most people who are dying in the circumstances explained in this paper do so in great pain. If medical personnel cannot relieve such suffering using available therapeutic medicines, it is only noble and humanitarian to agree that there should be a “right to die” in such circumstances. To support this assertion, McLean (2013) says, “this right should correlate with the duty of everyone to allow such persons to kill themselves, if necessary with the help of specified others, or, in cases of incapacity, have the killing initiated and carried out for them” (p. 455).
Based on the evidence gathered in this paper, correctly, we could deduce that although modern medicine has contributed towards the prolonging of human life, in the context of this paper, it prolongs death, as opposed to life. The arguments presented by people who oppose assisted suicide are valid, but if there are no possible medications that could heal a patient who is suffering, the only humane thing to do is to find an acceptable way of ending such suffering.
Assisted suicide would provide patients with relief from suffering and similarly safeguard their dignity in life. The overarching theme of this study hinges on the fact that life is for the living because no human being should live a life of suffering, and that has no dignity. Comprehensively, assisted suicide provides a humanitarian way out of suffering for patients and families.
Bryant, C. (2003). Handbook of Death and Dying. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Emanuel, L., Von Gunten, C., & Ferris, F. (2009). The Education for Physicians on End-of-life Care (EPEC) curriculum. New York, NY: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
Harned, M. (2012). The Dangers of Assisted Suicide: No Longer Theoretical. Web.
McLean, S. (2013). First Do No Harm: Law, Ethics and Healthcare. New York, NY: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.
Quill, T., & Battin, M. (2004). Physician-Assisted Dying: The Case for Palliative Care and Patient Choice. New York, NY: JHU Press.