Escaping from a Nightmare with Physician-Assisted Suicide

blog visual screenshotby Andria Meyer

Being entirely consumed and trapped by an illness for the remainder of your life is parallel to living a nightmare. Unfortunately, such a nightmare is reality for many patients across the United States. My grandfather (pictured) was diagnosed with cancer of the spinal cord and battled for five years. Two of those years he was confined to bed. He went through chemotherapy and was told the tumor was shrinking only to find out, on a major visit to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, that the doctors had been inaccurately reading his check up results. The tumor was only growing. The reality of this nightmare was fully comprehended by my mother (pictured) once her dad was called to the front-lines of battle against cancer. My mother talks of how there came a point where she could slowly see the energy and zeal for life draining from my granddad’s eyes, his once wholesome sense of being entirely consumed by fatigue. Weakness slowly became the strongest trait she saw in him. He had once been so strong and capable of seamlessly overcoming any challenge life presented.

Such a battle takes a toll on any soldier. Family watching from the sidelines struggles with their inability to lace up their boots and step up to the front lines to help. But what happens when your loved one decides that they have soldiered on as long as they could, fought with all they have and wish to peacefully exit their life and family on Earth? What are the patient’s options and rights as an individual? These questions are contemplated frequently among the field of medicine and families like mine. A patient should be able to call the shots freely, as they wish, once they have been summoned into battle with an illness as my grandfather was.

The legal standpoint is of major concern for many people who discuss the topic of physician-assisted suicide. In the late 90s, Oregon adopted the Death with Dignity Act. This act provides a rigorous clearing process for patients who wish to receive PAS as an alternative to their illness. During this process, the patient must request PAS as an alternative both verbally and in writing with a 15 day waiting period in between the requests. The patient’s illness or diagnosis must adhere the patient to a limited life expectancy of six months. They also must undergo a mental health evaluation to ensure they are mentally stable and able to make clear decisions pertaining to their treatment. In addition, the patient is made fully aware of other alternatives such as hospice or home care. By completing this process and obeying these guidelines, the physician who facilitates the assisted suicide is safe from persecution (Chin et al. 577). Through all these restrictions, the entire process protects not only the physician but also the patient making the process completely legally safeguarded. Legality has been clearly established. The “go” has been given to the government to further develop legalization nation-wide.

Another valid point in the argument is human control over life versus fate and destiny. John Lachs, a Philosophy Professor and Vanderbilt and Ph.D., states it best when he says, “The human race has pronounced judgment on this theory long ago by happily taking control of human life, extending and shortening it according to what seems sensible and good at any given time” (205). Those who side with fate over human-control have simply overlooked what man has done in science and medicine. With advances in cell research, medicinal exploration and scientific experiments that exceed the supposed impossible, humans have undoubtedly taken on an authoritative role in deciding what dies, what lives and for how long. Physician-assisted suicide is not any different from what humans have already been doing in research for the past decade.

Some argue that the Hippocratic Oath provides reason to not legalize physician-assisted suicide. The Hippocratic Oath presents physicians as professionals who should swear to never kill as a means of cure. Although the Oath has been upheld through centuries of medicine, it is entirely unrealistic to assume the Oath will defy change as advancements are made in our medical world. Nikola Biller-Adorno, M.D., Ph.D, states that, “The role of physicians is not simply to preserve life but also to apply expertise and skills to help improve their patients’ health or alleviate their suffering” (1451). As more resources, like physician-assisted suicide, become available, a doctor should present all possible options to their patients. The act of “preser[ving] life” not only involves curing patients when a cure is attainable, but also includes protecting the quality of life of patients. If a cure is not available by any means of treatment, physician-assisted suicide should be available as a safeguard to the individual’s quality of life.

My mother wishes that the option of PAS would have been available for my granddad. The last memories of him are those of pain and defeat. If physician assisted suicide would have been available, he would have potentially died sooner but the last memories of him would not be so somber. PAS would have given him a sense of dignity in his death by providing him with the choice of dying when he wished and not letting the illness decide for him. While being trapped and fully consumed by a life-altering illness is an undeniable nightmare, the alternative of physician-assisted suicide is undoubtedly the ultimate saving grace. Until it becomes readily available for all individuals… hoo-rah. Soldier on, soldiers.

Works Cited

Biller-Adorno, Nikola. “Physician-Assisted Suicide Should Be Permitted.” New England Journal of Medicine. 368 (2013): 1450-52. Web. 24 Sep. 2013.

Chin, Arthur E, Katrina Hedberg, Grant K Higginson, and David W Fleming. “Legalized Physician-Assisted Suicide-The First Year.” New England Journal of Medicine. 342 (2000): 577-604. Web. 25 Sep. 2013.

Lachs, John, and Patrick Lee. “Is Physician-Assisted Suicide Ever Ethical?.” Trans. Array Contemporary Debates in Bioethics. UK: John-Wiley & Sons, 2014. 197-228. Print.

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10 thoughts on “Escaping from a Nightmare with Physician-Assisted Suicide

  1. Very interesting article. What would your take be on people in a coma for many years or have an impaired way of life because of a disease and they are unable to take care of themselves? The thing that bothers me about physician-assisted suicide is the possibility of us being able to judge the quality of life. This life is worth living,while this one is not. I think there needs to be assisted suicide for those with terminal illnesses, except there needs to be a fine line. That is where it gets tricky, when you have care takers making the decisions for their loved ones.

    • In what way do we not already do that, though? If your loved one is in a coma, it’s up to you whether you want to keep them on IV, lying in a hospital bed, hoping they’ll wake up. You can already choose to take them off that IV and let them die, without any consent from the person in the coma.

      I don’t know what they are offhand, but I’d assume any rules or guidelines applicable in that situation would be applicable to PAS when a caretaker makes that decision. Plus, with PAS, you have not only the caretaker in the decision, but also the physician, who probably understands the medical situation more intimately, and the caretaker is also made definitively aware of other options and is given a mental health examination, so it is much less likely to be a rash decision.

      Really, I think this helps that situation, rather than hurting it.

  2. GREAT article and I love your picture! It’s very, very hard watching a family member battle any kind of illness, especially when it slowly leads to death. 😦 Unfortunately I had to watch my grandfather suffer from cancer which slowly led to him passing away. It was awful seeing him in so much pain.

  3. The picture was very moving; I also liked how you used the ‘soldier in battle’ analogy throughout the blog. I agree with your stance on the issue; if the patient is of sound mind and is completely aware that their condition is very unlikely to improve, they should have the option to skip the suffering and leave this world while they aren’t in constant torment. The process for PAS seems considerably solid as well, I suppose the big reason why there is a lot of opposition is the moral aspect of PAS.

  4. Great article. I watched all 4 of my grand parents suffer significantly. I believe that someone should have a choice in when they die if they literally have no quality of life. In the same way that someone in a comma can have the plug pulled by their family if they deem it fit. Or when someone is allowed to make a “Do Not Resuscitate” order. I would not want to be a physician who was required to participate in PAS, I would not feel that I had the right to perform such an action upon someone. But I do not aspire to be a physician and I feel that, as you stated, it is their duty to care for their patients and help ease their pain. I also believe that your process for earning the ability to choose PAS is solid and well thought out.

  5. Your article was wonderful and very moving, and the picture you used was a great addition to an already strong post. I loved how you used the analogy of a soldier fighting battle to explain fighting cancer, because that’s essentially what it is. We as a family have no control over our loved one’s and have no way to stop their pain. It’s difficult not only for the patient, but their loved one’s as well. I can relate to your personal example because I watched firsthand as my grandpa died from cancer. He turned into a completely different person than the man I once knew. It was a struggle for us as a family to have to sit there and wait for fate to take it’s course. I think ultimately the patient knows what’s best for them and should have the option to control what happens to their life. Again, great article.

  6. I think I already told you this in class but I absolutely love this topic and your take on it. I agree 100%.
    By allowing an individual to make the choice on when they die, you reinforce the idea that they have control over their life. This lends itself to a sort of individual dignity that each person has hence the term “Dying with dignity.”
    I’ve watched my own family members die. Two days ago my grandma died over in Europe through unknown causes but she died in the most peaceful and dignified way possible. She was happy, comfortable, not in pain, and died in her sleep.
    In contrast, I lost my grandfather a few months ago before my grandma to leukemia and heart related issues. He was bed ridden for months while they tried every option to save him with to no avail. In the end, he chose to end all procedures and to just fade away with his loved ones huddled around him.
    My grandparents died with the love of their family at their side and while we still grieved, we realized they died in the same way they lived; with dignity.

  7. Your picture is such a great one! Is that actually your mother?
    Your take on this subject is a moving one. You compare people suffering to soldiers and the situation to a battle as a whole. That’s impressive. Fortunately, I have never had to deal with this situation, but, I have seen people go through it, and it’s so tough. I believe that people should have the right to end their own lives if they so choose.

  8. First condolences to your family. I like your very personal connection with this topic, explaining the legal back round checks and state the patient must be in was astonishing to me. I believe that if someone has been worn out and is done battling it should be there choice. A life of living in a “vegetable” state is one you wouldn’t wish on anyone so why make them continue to battle everyday. I agree it is the persons right to choose.

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