When it comes to death, many like to point fingers at everyone but the newly deceased. You hear irritated mutters about the incompetent doctor, the idiotic driver and the sad twist of fate. You ask yourself the question; was he/she ready to go? It’s a hard question to answer, but today, that question can be answered easily. Some countries/states have legalized “assisted suicide”, giving people the decision to quietly end suffering and ‘die with dignity’. Such an act completely contradicts the role of the healthcare system in a community, yet at the same time adds a level of control and humanity in the way we depart the earth.
Here’s how it works. Simply put, a terminally ill patient above the age of 18 must make three formal oral requests for lethal medication, the second of which comes after a minimum 15 day interval from the first. There must also be a formal written request signed by two witnesses before the doctor can prescribe lethal drugs. If the request is approved, the drug is prescribed, and the patient self-administers the medication that will kill them. This “Death with Dignity” Act was approved in the state of Oregon in 1994, followed by Colombia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Washington state, Luxembourg, Vermont, Quebec, and California within the past 20 years.
At the most basic level, assisted suicide defies the very fundamental principles of medicine. The social stigma associated with self-inflicted harm is already a huge issue in today’s society, and now medical professionals are offering their services to aid such a quest for death. The doctors themselves aren’t directly murdering the patient, (as the patient himself is required to administer the lethal dose) but their role is more or less equated to handing them the knife and teaching them the best place to stab themselves. Of course, the role of the doctor is to act in the best interests on the patient – but who knows best?
Human life is a beautiful thing, a gift to be treasured, but sometimes that gift contains more than unicorns, rainbows and sunshine. For those unfortunate enough to draw the short straw, to continue living is a painful process and the only foreseeable gratification is death. To simplify this concept, let’s stick to the generic scenario of an end-stage cancer patient. Months of chemotherapy and radiation have cost you your strength, spirit and of course, your hair. Each round is another torturous journey holding no more hope than the desperate search for an oasis in a desert. And when you’ve decided you’d rather take the reins and you just can’t hold out anymore waiting for that miracle, that’s when you summon your doctor and make your first oral request.
It’s a dignified way to die, or at least that’s what it’s being marketed as. Many would disagree, insisting that we play out the parts designed for us by our maker, silently hoping there is a miracle lurking just around the corner. For such people, human suffering is inevitable, a rite of passage each person goes through one way or another. It may be physical, mental or emotional, but success doesn’t come by throwing down the rake and forcefully kicking the bucket.
We must also consider the psychological effects of contracting a terminal disease on a patient. What follows the diagnosis is often anger, frustration, feelings of helplessness and so on – all likely to predispose one to depression or at least contribute to an cloudy state of mind. Are such people in the position to make this decision that will affect not only themselves, but their loved ones?
The principle of self-autonomy that all doctors learn in their first year of medical school speaks of the patient’s authority to make their own medical decisions – why shouldn’t this be included? We like to know beforehand what will happen so appropriate preparations can be made: final meals can be eaten, last farewells can be bid, last kisses exchanged and final tears shed. Of course it isn’t an easy decision, but it surely beats waiting for the three hags to snip your thinning thread.
Assisted suicide is highly controversial, to say the least. Countless arguments can be made in favour of the affirmative or the negative, depending on values, beliefs, traditions and experiences. Everyone holds their own opinions, and often those are strong and fervently expressed in debate. These are the two questions which determine your answer:
Is suicide an acceptable act?
Which is more important: a doctor’s role in saving lives or a patient’s self-autonomy?