Thursday, April 24, 2014

Assisted suicide advocates make their case in JAMA

Editor's note: Under JAMA's Conflict of Interest Disclosures, each of the authors of this excerpted article "report consulting for Compassion and Choices," an assisted suicide advocacy organization formerly known as the Hemlock Society.

Excerpted from "The Changing Legal Climate for Physician Aid in Dying," JAMA, April 14, 2014 - Voters in Oregon and Washington have legalized aid in dying by public referendum, legislators in Vermont have done so by statutory enactment, and courts in Montana and New Mexico have done so by judicial rulings. Support for aid in dying is increasing, and it would not be surprising to see voters, legislators, or courts in other states approve the practice.

At one time, it was not clear whether patients could hasten death by refusing life-sustaining medical treatment. Recognition of the right to refuse life-sustaining care reflected a societal consensus that people should be able to decline treatment when they are suffering greatly from irreversible and severe illness. Although a right to refuse treatment did not go too far in allowing death-causing actions, many people felt it did not go far enough. For instance, some patients are seriously ill and suffering greatly from widely metastatic cancer or other advanced diseases, but are not dependent on life-sustaining treatment. For those patients, aid in dying can be an important option.

However, there are real risks if patients are allowed to receive a prescription for a lethal dose of medication. Not all patients who would ask for a prescription would be suffering from an irreversible and severe illness. Some might have become tired of life, depressed, or feel that that their life has insufficient meaning. Accordingly, a right to aid in dying could be recognized only with assurances that access would be limited to patients who are truly seriously ill. In addition, as with the withdrawal of treatment, the government could not impose limits by making quality-of-life judgments.

The terminal illness requirement provides the right kind of limit for aid in dying. It does not empower the government to make quality-of-life judgments, and it restricts the practice to patients who are suffering from irreversible and severe disease.

This is not just a matter of theory. Oregon has had more than 15 years of experience with aid in dying limited to the terminally ill, and the state’s experience has been reassuring. Vulnerable patients are not succumbing to aid in dying. It is not surprising that once Oregon’s experience with aid in dying was reassuring, other states were willing to consider authorizing aid in dying.

By restricting aid in dying to competent and terminally ill adults, the law can ease the dying process for patients, and their families, and avoid the potential for the mistreatment of patients.


Jonathan Imbody
CMA VP for Government Relations Jonathan Imbody – “These assisted suicide advocates cleverly employ several techniques to break down barriers to their radical position, which is that we should obviate over two millennia of Hippocratic medicine and empower doctors to help their patients kill themselves.
  • Employing euphemisms: The authors insist that the euphemistic term ‘aid in dying’ replace the clear and accurate term ‘assisted suicide.’ The group they support changed its name from the Hemlock Society to Compassion and Choices.
  • Linking a radical idea to an accepted idea: We're supposed to think that just as our society once hesitated to allow patients to refuse life support but now accepts that notion, we likewise should see the light and embrace assisted suicide. As if there is no difference between letting someone die naturally and killing them with secobarbital.
  • Stressing meaningless safeguards: The authors try to position themselves as the concerned, conservative protectors of patients and ethics, emphasizing that ‘a right to aid in dying could be recognized only with assurances that access would be limited to patients who are truly seriously ill.’ But since ‘the government could not impose limits by making quality-of-life judgments,’ who determines what ‘seriously ill’ means? You guessed it--physicians like the authors, whose bias toward assisted suicide will doubtless expand the definition beyond meaning.
  • Citing misleading statistics: ‘Figures don't lie, but liars figure.’ Crafty assisted suicide advocates wrote into Oregon's assisted suicide measure the following secrecy clause: ‘...the information collected shall not be a public record and may not be made available for inspection by the public.’ That clause prohibits anyone-- relatives, media, watchdog groups, medical associations--from investigating the details of any of the reported assisted suicide cases. State bureaucrats, who, of course, maintain a vested interest in covering up any problems or abuses that might reflect negatively on the state, annually trot out their own bland, general statistics without detail or the possibility of review. Year after year, assisted suicide advocates point to these meaningless, whitewashed, non-verifiable numbers as proof that the system is working wonderfully.
“For secular audiences, some effective arguments against assisted suicide include:
  • highlighting the lack of safeguards in most assisted suicide measures, including inadequate diagnosis and treatment of depression, the absence of requirements to notify family members and the dangers of storing lethal medications at home;
  • explaining how assisted suicide perverts the safe nature of the patient-physician relationship, removing the vital assurance that the physician will always ‘do no harm;’ and
  • emphasizing that healthcare payers including insurers, the government and even heirs have a tempting financial incentive that leans heavily toward your premature death.”


CMDA Resources on Assisted Suicide


Write a response to JAMA

Advocate in your own specialty college for hospice and palliative care and against assisted suicide and euthanasia.

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