This summer, the District of Columbia followed the lead of six U.S. states and legalized assisted suicide, allowing adults who are terminally ill to obtain a lethal dosage of drugs with the approval of their doctor.
The new legislation renews an age-old but still divisive question: Is it ethical to help a patient end their life? As more states consider new physician-assisted suicide legislation, it is imperative that the general public engage with this discussion.
“This is the way public policy is formulated — democratically,” said Jeffrey Leon, philosophy lecturer and specialist in applied ethics. “Policies don’t come from high above, they come from secular conversations.”
Although a majority of Americans — 73 percent — now support assisted suicide, it’s still illegal in almost every state. Clearly, there is still some opposition. There is a widespread perception that assisted suicide is unethical, even cruel. To create an informed debate, the public must address this perception. They must consider cases where refusing to give a patient the choice to die is equally, or even more inhumane, than forcing them to live.
One case of such inhumanity, long examined in the medical ethics canon, is that of Dax Cowart. Severely burned in a gas explosion, Cowart’s treatment intensified his physical pain; to keep his wounds from becoming infected, doctors forcibly held him down in a tank of Clorox solution each day, screaming while his burned skin was scrubbed. Cowart begged doctors to let him die. Collected and coherent, he explained to his psychiatrist on film that he didn’t “want to go through the pain” and “go on as a blind and crippled person.”
The doctors ignored his voice.
Although he survived and became a successful lawyer, Cowart still believes he should have had the right to die. Opponents argue that assisted suicide is unethical, but what could be more unethical than forcing a suffering patient to endure a life which they do not want to live?
Today, many people look to assisted suicide to gain control over suffering and their death. One individual who strove for such control was Brittany Maynard, who attracted viral attention when she chose to end her life three years ago. Diagnosed with a Stage 4 brain tumor, Maynard died on her own terms rather than waiting for a sudden and possibly agonizing end. Because assisted suicide is legal in Oregon, Maynard was able to use lethal drugs prescribed by her doctor to die, according to a spokesman, “as she intended — peacefully in her bedroom, in the arms of her loved ones.”
A common opposing argument is that patients could kill themselves without the assistance of their physician, but such suicides are often more painful and violent than the calm, dignified death that assisted suicide can offer. Without physician-assisted suicide, terminally ill patients must either wait for an unpredictable, possibly painful death or commit suicide without expert help — which can be emotionally and physically excruciating. In both scenarios, the patient loses control. They do not have the option to die on their own terms, tranquilly, surrounded by friends and family.
Leon testified to these benefits. “(Physician-assisted suicide) promotes patient well being … if they’re competent or conscious, promotes autonomy.”
Despite a perception that assisted suicide is unethical, preventing a patient from accessing a peaceful death can be far more cruel. It’s crucial for informed citizens to keep this in mind and lend their voices to the national conversation as more states begin to consider such legislation.
Leake is a Plan II and business freshman from Austin.