Why Doctors Must Not Kill—Still!

by Christopher White, Ramsey Institute Project Director on August 21, 2014

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Earlier this week a woman in British Columbia committed suicide as an act of protest against Canada’s ban on physician assisted suicide. An article in the Vancouver Sun describes her final moments:

Bennett, who was 85 and in the early stages of dementia, chose to take her own life with a draught of good whiskey, a dose of Nembutal mixed with water, and her husband of 60 years by her side.

Along with her husband, Bennett leaves behind two adult children, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Following her death, her daughter remarked, “Even though my mom died painlessly in exactly the way she chose, at the time she chose, knowing that she left the legacy she chose, it’s still unbelievably painful.” According to her daughter, were physician suicide legal in Canada, her mother could have waited to longer to make her decision of when to die.

Such a view, however, represents a misunderstanding of the role of medicine, which must always be a healing and life-affirming practice. Discussions surrounding physician-assisted suicide are almost always masked by the language of choice, autonomy, and compassion. But these are all euphemisms.

Advocates for the practice, such as Bennett’s family members, appeal the idea that one should be able to “die with dignity.” Yet these private wishes that one might hold does not make for good public policy or medical practice. Doctors are bound by the Hippocratic Oath, which is a solemn commitment to “do no harm” in their practice.

That’s why any time physician assisted suicide has come up for discussion within the United States, groups such as the American College of Physicians and the American Medical Association have opposed the practice, stating it would do far more harm than good. Indeed, it would damage the very integrity of their profession.

The dying process is understandably painful and deeply personal. That’s why we should do all we can to improve palliative care, treat depression for terminally ill patients, and aid family members and loved ones to know how to properly participate in this process.

But the illusion that death can be held as a positive solution must always be rejected.

Patients deserve better and they deserve more.

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