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Note: Varies by jurisdiction
Note: Varies by jurisdiction
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Assisted suicide is suicide committed with the aid of another person, sometimes a physician. The term is often used interchangeably with physician-assisted suicide (PAS), which involves a doctor "knowingly and intentionally providing a person with the knowledge or means or both required to commit suicide, including counselling about lethal doses of drugs, prescribing such lethal doses or supplying the drugs.” Assisted suicide and euthanasia are sometimes combined under the umbrella term "assisted dying", an example of a trend by advocates to replace the word "suicide" with "death" or ideally, "dying". Other euphemisms in common use are "physician-assisted dying", "physician-assisted death", "aid in dying", "death with dignity", "dying with dignity", "right to die" "compassionate death", "compassionate dying", "end-of-life choice", and "medical assistance at the end of life".
Physician-assisted suicide is often confused with euthanasia (sometimes called "mercy killing"). In cases of euthanasia the physician administers the means of death, usually a lethal drug. Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is always at the request and with the consent of the patient, since he or she self-administers the means of death.
According to several studies, more than half of the oncologists polled have received requests from a patient wanting to end their life. Physicians are only allowed to prescribe lethal medications in jurisdictions where it is legal, regardless of what the patient wants or the prognosis for their disease.
Discussion of assisted suicide centers on legal, social, ethical, moral and religious issues related to suicide and murder.
- 1 Reasons for opposing assisted suicide
- 1.1 Medical ethics
- 1.2 Religious ethics
- 1.3 "Slippery slope" argument
- 1.4 Prejudices against the disabled
- 1.5 Conflicting roles of physicians
- 1.6 Risk to public safety
- 2 Legality
- 3 Legality by country
- 3.1 Australia
- 3.2 Belgium
- 3.3 Canada
- 3.4 China
- 3.5 Colombia
- 3.6 Denmark
- 3.7 France
- 3.8 Germany
- 3.9 Iceland
- 3.10 Luxembourg
- 3.11 The Netherlands
- 3.12 New Zealand
- 3.13 Romania
- 3.14 South Africa
- 3.15 Switzerland
- 3.16 United Kingdom
- 3.17 United States
- 4 Organizations in support of assisted suicide
- 5 Organizations opposed to assisted suicide
- 6 Published research
- 6.1 Attitude of Healthcare professionals
- 6.2 Factors that influence physicians' attitudes towards physician-assisted suicide
- 7 Improvements in end-of-life decision making
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
Reasons for opposing assisted suicide
Physician-assisted suicide is contrary to the original Hippocratic Oath of 400 B.C.E., stating "I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel". The original oath however has been modified many times and, contrary to popular belief, is not required by most modern medical schools, although some have adopted modern versions that suit many in the profession in the 21st century.
The Declaration of Geneva
The Declaration of Geneva is a revision of the Hippocratic Oath, first drafted in 1948 by the World Medical Association in response to euthanasia, eugenics and other medical crimes performed in Nazi Germany. It contains, "I will maintain the utmost respect for human life."
The International Code of Medical Ethics
The International Code of Medical Ethics, last revised in 2006, includes "A physician shall always bear in mind the obligation to respect human life" in the section "Duties of physicians to patients".
The Statement of Marbella
The Statement of Marbella was adopted by the 43rd World Medical Assembly Malta and editorially revised by the 44th World Medical Assembly in Marbella, Spain in 1992. It outlines guidelines for physicians when dealing with hunger strikers. Physician-assisted suicide is not explicitly prohibited, but could be seen as contrary to the principles of this statement. The first principle is, "Duty to act ethically. All physicians are bound by medical ethics in their professional contact with vulnerable people, even when not providing therapy." The second principle is "Respect for autonomy", meaning a physician is to respect that "food or treatment refusal is the individual's choice". The third principle is 'Benefit' and 'harm'. "Physicians must exercise their skills and knowledge to benefit those they treat...'Benefit' includes respecting individuals' wishes as well as promoting their welfare. Avoiding 'harm' means not only minimising damage to health but also not forcing treatment upon competent people nor coercing them to stop fasting. Beneficence does not necessarily involve prolonging life at all costs, irrespective of other values." 
Because assisted suicide and euthanasia constitute deliberate killing of another person, these practices contradict the fundamental Buddhist principle of refraining from killing a living being. According to Buddhism, suicide is an uncompassionate act as it causes grief to others and is believed to deprive them of spiritual development. Buddhism also says that assisted suicide is uncompassionate because, according to Buddhist belief, death will not relieve the killed person of suffering, but postpone the suffering to the next life. The perpetrator will also, in Buddhist belief, experience negative karma and suffering in the next life, as killing another person, no matter the reason, is seen as a negative act.
"Slippery slope" argument
There are many health care professionals, especially those concerned with bioethics, who are opposed to PAS due to the detrimental effects that the procedure can have with regard to vulnerable populations. This argument is known as the "slippery slope". This argument encompasses the apprehension that once PAS is initiated for the terminally ill it will progress to other vulnerable communities, namely the disabled, and may begin to be used by those who feel less worthy based on their demographic or socioeconomic status. In addition, vulnerable populations are more at risk of untimely deaths because, "patients might be subjected to PAD without their genuine consent". However, recent studies claim that the available evidence suggests that the legalization of physician-assisted suicide might actually decrease the prevalence of involuntary euthanasia.
Prejudices against the disabled
Also, prejudices against disabled people may be enacted with regards to end-of-life care. For example, 'do not resuscitate' orders are more frequently issued for those who become hospitalized and previously suffer from severe disabilities. In addition, many people who suffer from lifelong disabilities suffer from "burn out", which is a general feeling of depression and sadness that comes as a result of years of intolerance and prejudice. Naturally, those individuals suffering from “burn out" are more likely to want to refuse treatment and end their fight for life prematurely.
Conflicting roles of physicians
The Royal College of Surgeons argue that "It would fundamentally alter the role of the doctor and their relationship with their patient. Medical attendants should be present to preserve and improve life – if they are also involved in the taking of life this creates a conflict that is potentially very damaging."
Risk to public safety
The Royal College of Surgeons also argues that "There is a danger that a 'right to die' may become a 'responsibility to die' making already vulnerable people even more vulnerable."
Euthanasia is legal in Belgium, the Netherlands, Colombia and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide, where the patient has to take the final action themselves (unlike euthanasia), is legal in the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland. In the United States there are assisted dying laws restricted to terminally ill and mentally competent adults in Oregon, Montana, Washington, and Vermont. Oregon was the first US State to legalize assisted suicide, which was achieved through popular vote. The Act was a citizens' initiative passed twice by Oregon voters. The first time was in a general election in November 1994 when it passed by a margin of 51% to 49%. An injunction delayed implementation of the Act until it was lifted on October 27, 1997. In November 1997, a measure was placed on the general election ballot to repeal the Act. Voters chose to retain the Act by a margin of 60% to 40%.
Legality by country
In 2006, Belgium partially legalized euthanasia with certain regulations:
- The patient must be an adult and in a "futile medical condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that cannot be alleviated"
- The patient must have a long-term history with the doctor, with euthanasia/physician assisted suicide only allowed for permanent residents
- There need to be several requests that are reviewed by a commission and approved by two doctors.
Suicide was considered a criminal offence in Canada until 1972, after which it was removed from the Criminal Code.
The Criminal Code of Canada states in section 241(b) that
Every one who ….(b) aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years"
The reason behind its former illegality owed to preventing people from 'assisting in suicide' those that are not mentally capable of making the decision and because of the "value that society places on human life" which "in the eyes of the law makers, might easily be eroded if assistance in committing suicide were to be decriminalized."
In 1993, the Supreme Court of Canada heard a case (Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General)) in which Sue Rodriguez, a terminally ill woman, challenged the prohibition of assisted suicide as contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In a 5 to 4 decision, the Court upheld the provision in the Criminal Code of Canada.
On June 15, 2012, the British Columbia Supreme Court struck down the prohibition against physician-assisted suicide, calling the current law discriminatory, disproportionate and overbroad. Justice Lynn Smith suspended her ruling for a period of one year in order to give Parliament time to draft legislation with her ruling in mind. Within a month, the federal government announced it would appeal that ruling. On October 25, 2012, the federal government filed its 54-page legal argument, arguing inter alia that the purpose of the current legislation is "to protect the vulnerable, who might be induced in moments of weakness to commit suicide", that "it is a reflection of the state’s policy that the inherent value of all human life should not be depreciated by allowing one person to take another’s life", and that the B.C. Supreme Court had no right to attempt to overrule the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in the 1993 Rodriguez case. On December 10, 2012, the British Columbia Court of Appeal announced that it had scheduled a hearing for the appeal in March, 2013.
On February 6, 2015, The Supreme Court of Canada released their decision in the Carter v Canada (AG) case, a landmark ruling where the prohibition of assisted suicide was illegal and struck it down by a unanimous vote. The court found that section 241(b) and section 14 of the Criminal Code unjustifiably infringed on Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
An article in People's Daily reported that "Nine people from Xi'an City in China made news when they 'jointly wrote to local media asking for euthanasia, or mercy killings'". These people had uremia, a disease due to the failure of the kidneys, and expressed their "unbearable suffering and [an unwillingness] to burden their families any more". The article stated because it is illegal for doctors to help their patients die, all that could be done for them was to ask the doctors to ease their pain.
Despite its strict Roman Catholic history, in May 1997 Colombian courts allowed for the euthanasia of sick patients who requested to end their lives. This ruling came about owing to the efforts of a group that strongly opposed euthanasia. When one of its members brought a lawsuit to the Colombian Supreme Court against it, the court issued a 6 to 3 decision that "spelled out the rights of a terminally ill person to engage in voluntary euthanasia."
Though physician-assisted suicide is legal, the country has no way to document or set rules and regulations for doctors and patients who want to end their lives. Though it is opposed on religious grounds by many Colombians, many patients have still been able to find doctors to assist them in ending their lives.
Denmark has no laws regarding physician-assisted suicide.
The controversy over legalising euthanasia and physician assisted suicide is not as big as in the United States because of the country's "well developed hospice care programme". However, in 2000 the controversy over the uncontroversial topic was ignited with Vincent Humbert. After a car crash that left him "unable to 'walk, see, speak, smell or taste'", he used the movement of his right thumb to write a book, I Ask the Right to Die (Je vous demande le droit de mourir) in which he voiced his desire to "die legally". After his appeal was denied, his mother assisted in killing him by injecting him with an overdose of barbiturates that put him into a coma, killing him 2 days later. Though his mother was arrested for aiding in her son's death and later acquitted, the case did jumpstart a new legislation which states that when medicine serves "no other purpose than the artificial support of life" it can be "suspended or not undertaken".
In 2013 President Francois Hollande said that France should hold a national debate on the issue and stated his intention to introduce a bill to parliament before the end of the year. Opinion polls in France show that the majority of the public are in favour of an assisted suicide law, however France's national ethics committee has advised against any change in the law.
Assisting with suicide by, for example, providing poison or a weapon, is generally legal. Since suicide itself is legal, assistance or encouragement is not punishable by the usual legal mechanisms dealing with complicity and incitement (German criminal law follows the idea of "accessories of complicity" which states that "the motives of a person who incites another person to commit suicide, or who assists in its commission, are irrelevant"). Nor is assisting with suicide explicitly outlawed by the criminal code. There can however be legal repercussions under certain conditions for a number of reasons. Aside from laws regulating firearms, the trade and handling of controlled substances and the like (e.g. when acquiring poison for the suicidal person), this concerns three points:
Free vs. manipulated will
If the suicidal person is not acting out of his own free will, then assistance is punishable by any of a number of homicide offences that the criminal code provides for, as having "acted through another person" (§25, section 1 of the German criminal code, usually called "mittelbare Täterschaft"). Action out of free will is not ruled out by the decision to end one's life in itself; it can be assumed as long as a suicidal person "decides on his own fate up to the end […] and is in control of the situation."
Free will cannot be assumed, however, if someone is manipulated or deceived. A classic textbook example for this, in German law, is the so-called Sirius case on which the Federal Court of Justice ruled in 1983: The accused had convinced an acquaintance that she would be re-incarnated into a better life if she killed herself. She unsuccessfully attempted suicide, leading the accused to be charged with, and eventually convicted of attempted murder. (The accused had also convinced the acquaintance that he hailed from the star Sirius, hence the name of the case).
Apart from manipulation, the criminal code states three conditions under which a person is not acting under his own free will:
- if the person is under 14
- if the person has "one of the mental diseases listed in §20 of the German Criminal Code"
- a person that is acting under a state of emergency.
Under these circumstances, even if colloquially speaking one might say a person is acting of his own free will, a conviction of murder is possible.
Neglected duty to rescue
German criminal law obliges everybody to come to the rescue of others in an emergency, within certain limits (§323c of the German criminal code, "Omission to effect an easy rescue"). This is also known as a duty to rescue in English. Under this rule, the party assisting in the suicide can be convicted if, in finding the suicidal person in a state of unconsciousness, he does not do everything in his power to revive him. In other words, if someone assists a person in committing suicide, leaves, but comes back and finds the person unconscious, he must try to revive him.
This reasoning is disputed by legal scholars, citing that a life-threatening condition that is part, so to speak, of a suicide underway, is not an emergency. For those who would rely on that defence, the Federal Court of Justice has considered it an emergency in the past.
Homicide by omission
German law puts certain people in the position of a warrantor (Garantenstellung) for the well-being of another, e.g. parents, spouses, doctors and police officers. Such people might find themselves legally bound to do what they can to prevent a suicide; if they do not, they are guilty of homicide by omission.
Assisted suicide is illegal. “At the current time, there are no initiatives in Iceland that seek the legalization of euthanasia or assisted suicide. The discussion on euthanasia has never received any interest in Iceland, and both lay people and health care professionals seem to have little interest in the topic. A few articles have appeared in newspapers but gained little attention.”
After failing to get royal assent for legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide, in December 2008 Luxembourg's parliament amended the country's constitution to take this power away from the monarch, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg. Euthanasia and assisted suicide were legalized in the country in April, 2009.
Physician-assisted suicide is legal under the same conditions as euthanasia.
Assisted suicide is illegal in New Zealand. Under Section 179 of the Crimes Act 1961, it is illegal to 'aid and abet suicide.'
South Africa is struggling with the debate over legalizing euthanasia. Owing to the under-developed health care system that pervades the majority of the country, Willem Landman, "a member of the South African Law Commission, at a symposium on euthanasia at the World Congress of Family Doctors" stated that many South African doctors would be willing to perform acts of euthanasia when it became legalized in the country. He feels that because of the lack of doctors in the country, "[legalizing] euthanasia in South Africa would be premature and difficult to put into practice […]".
On 30 April 2015 the High Court in Pretoria granted Advocate Robin Stransham-Ford an order that would allow a doctor to assist him in taking his own life without the threat of prosecution. The National Prosecuting Authority has stated their intention to appeal the ruling.
Though it is illegal to assist a patient in dying in some circumstances, there are others where there is no offence committed. The relevant provision of the Swiss Criminal Code refers to "a person who, for selfish reasons, incites someone to commit suicide or who assists that person in doing so will, if the suicide was carried out or attempted, be sentenced to a term of imprisonment (Zuchthaus) of up to 5 years or a term of imprisonment (Gefängnis)."
A person brought to court on a charge could presumably avoid conviction by proving that they were "motivated by the good intentions of bringing about a requested death for the purposes of relieving "suffering" rather than for "selfish" reasons. In order to avoid conviction, the person has to prove that the deceased knew what he or she was doing, had capacity to make the decision, and had made an "earnest" request, meaning he/she asked for death several times. The person helping also has to avoid actually doing the act that leads to death, lest they be convicted under Article 114: Killing on request (Tötung auf Verlangen) - A person who, for decent reasons, especially compassion, kills a person on the basis of his or her serious and insistent request, will be sentenced to a term of imprisonment (Gefängnis). For instance, it should be the suicide subject who actually presses the syringe or takes the pill, after the helper had prepared the setup. This way the country can criminalise certain controversial acts, which many of its people would oppose, while legalising a narrow range of assistive acts for some of those seeking help to end their lives.
In July 2009, British conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife Joan died together at a suicide clinic outside Zürich "under circumstances of their own choosing". Sir Edward was not terminally ill, but his wife was diagnosed with rapidly developing cancer.
In March 2010, the PBS FRONTLINE TV program in the United States showed a documentary called "The Suicide Tourist" which told the story of Professor Craig Ewert, his family, and Dignitas, and their decision to commit assisted suicide using Sodium Pentobarbital in Switzerland after he was diagnosed and suffering with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).
In May 2011, Zurich held a referendum that asked voters whether (i) assisted suicide should be prohibited outright; and (ii) whether Dignitas and other assisted suicide providers should not admit overseas users. Zurich voters heavily rejected both bans, despite anti-euthanasia lobbying from two Swiss social conservative political parties, the Evangelical People's Party of Switzerland and Federal Democratic Union. The outright ban proposal was rejected by eighty four percent of voters, while seventy eight percent voted to keep services open should overseas users require them.
In June 2011, The BBC televised the assisted suicide of Peter Smedley, a canning factory owner, who was suffering from motor neurone disease. The programme - Sir Terry Pratchett's Choosing To Die - told the story of Peter's journey to the end where he used The Dignitas Clinic, a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland, to assist him in carrying out the taking of his own life. The programme shows Peter eating chocolates to counter the unpalatable taste of the liquid he drinks to end his own life. Moments after drinking the liquid, Peter begged for water, gasped for breath and became red, he then fell into a deep sleep where he snored heavily while holding his wife's hand. Minutes later, Peter stopped breathing and his heart stopped beating.
England and Wales, Northern Ireland
Deliberately assisting a suicide is illegal. Between 2003 and 2006 Lord Joffe made four attempts to introduce bills that would have legalised assisted suicide in England & Wales - all were rejected by the UK Parliament. In the meantime the Director of Public Prosecutions has clarified the criteria under which an individual will be prosecuted in England & Wales for assisting in another person's suicide. These have not been tested by an appellate court as yet In 2014 Lord Falconer of Thoroton tabled an Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Lords which passed through Second Reading and ran out of time during Committee stage before the General Election. During its passage peers voted down two amendments which were proposed by opponents of the Bill. In 2015 Labour MP Rob Marris signaled his intention to introduce an assisted dying Bill, based on the Falconer proposals, into the House of Commons. Second Reading is scheduled for 11th September and will be the first time the main chamber will be able to vote on the issue since 1997. A Populus poll found that 82% of the British public agreed with the proposals of Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying Bill at the end of its passage.
Unlike the other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom, suicide was not illegal in Scotland before 1961 (and still is not) thus no associated offences were created in imitation. Depending on the actual nature of any assistance given to a suicide, the offences of murder or culpable homicide might be committed or there might be no offence at all; the nearest modern prosecutions bearing comparison might be those where a culpable homicide conviction has been obtained when drug addicts have died unintentionally after being given "hands on" non-medical assistance with an injection. Modern law regarding the assistance of someone who intends to die has a lack of certainty as well as a lack of relevant case law; this has led to attempts to introduce statutes providing more certainty.
Independent MSP Margo MacDonald's "End of Life Assistance Bill" was brought before the Scottish Parliament to permit assisted suicide in January 2010. The Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland, the largest denomination in Scotland, opposed the bill. The bill was rejected by a vote of 85-16 (with 2 abstentions) in December 2010.
The Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill was introduced on 13 November 2013 by the late Margo MacDonald MSP and was taken up by Patrick Harvie MSP on Ms MacDonald's death. The Bill is expected to enter the main committee scrutiny stage in January 2015 and reach a vote in Parliament several months later.
Assisted suicide is legal in the American states of Oregon (via the Oregon Death with Dignity Act), Washington (Washington Death with Dignity Act), Vermont (Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act), and New Mexico. In Montana (through the 2009 trial court ruling Baxter v. Montana), the court found no public policy against assisting suicide, so consent may be raised as a defense at trial. Oregon and Washington specify some restrictions.
Oregon requires a physician to prescribe medication but it must be self-administered. For the patient to be eligible, the patient must be diagnosed by an attending physician as well as by a consulting physician, with a terminal illness that will cause the death of the individual within 6 months. The law states that, in order to participate, a patient must be: 1) 18 years of age or older, 2) a resident of Oregon, 3) capable of making and communicating health care decisions for him/herself, and 4) diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six (6) months. It is up to the attending physician to determine whether these criteria have been met. It is required the patient orally request the medication at least twice and contribute at least one (1) written request. The physician must notify the patient of alternatives; such as palliative care, hospice and pain management. Lastly the physician is to request but not require the patient to notify their next of kin that they are requesting a prescription for a lethal dose of medication. Assuming all guidelines are met and the patient is deemed competent and completely sure they wish to end their life, the physician will prescribe the medication.
Since the law was passed in 1997, a total of 1,173 people have had DWDA prescriptions written and 752 patients have died from ingesting medications prescribed under the DWDA. In 2013, there were approximately 22 assisted suicides per 10,000 total deaths in Oregon.
Washington's rules and restrictions are similar, if not exactly the same, as Oregon's. Not only does the patient have to meet the above criteria, they also have to be examined by not one, but two doctors licensed in their state of residence. Both doctors must come to the same conclusion about the patient's prognosis. If one doctor does not see the patient fit for the prescription, then the patient must undergo psychological inspection to tell whether or not the patient is in fact capable and mentally fit to make the decision of assisted suicide or not.
In May 2013, Vermont became the fourth state in the union to legalize assisted suicide. Vermont’s House of Representatives voted 75–65 to approve the bill, Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act. This bill states that the qualifying patient must be at least 18, a Vermont resident and suffering from an incurable and irreversible disease, with less than six months to live. Also, two physicians, including the prescribing doctor must make the medical determination.
In January 2014, New Mexico inched closer to being the fifth state in the USA to legalize assisted suicide via a court ruling. “This court cannot envision a right more fundamental, more private or more integral to the liberty, safety and happiness of a New Mexican than the right of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying,” wrote Judge Nan G. Nash of the Second District Court in Albuquerque. The NM attorney general’s office said it was studying the decision and whether to appeal to the State Supreme Court.
Organizations in support of assisted suicide
Listed below are some major organizations that support assisted suicide:
Compassion & Choices
Compassion & Choices is a non-profit organization that supports, advocates, and educates people about health care options that can expand choice at the end of life. The organization was formed via the merging of Compassion in Dying and End-of-Life Choices organization (formerly known as the Hemlock Society).
Death with Dignity National Center
The Death with Dignity National Center is a nonprofit organization that has been in existence since 1993. This organization is most notably associated with the original writing and continued advocating of the Oregon Death with Dignity Law that was enacted on October 27, 1997.[third-party source needed]
Dignitas helps Swiss nationals and foreigners to commit suicide by providing advice and lethal drugs. The legal pre-requisites are that a person must have either a terminal illness, an unendurable incapacitating disability or unbearable and uncontrollable pain. However, in practice they also accept mentally ill patients  or those without a medical diagnosis, for example the retired British art teacher who killed herself on 27 March 2014 “in part because she had become fed up with the modern world of emails, TVs, computers and supermarket ready meals.”
Dignity in Dying
Disabled Activists for Dignity in Dying
DADID is a campaign group in the UK for disabled people in association with Dignity in Dying, led by disabled people who support a change in the law to allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults the choice of an assisted death within upfront safeguards. Disability is an issue claimed both by activists and opponents in support of their arguments. Most court cases appealing for assisted suicide have been brought by disabled persons. A Yougov poll in the U.K. suggested that 80% of disabled persons support a change in the law, such as Lord Falconer's Bill to allow some form of assisted suicide.
Exit is a Scottish organization that supports a permissive model of right-to-die legislation based on published research and recommendations from Glasgow University using an 'exceptions to the rule' (against euthanasia) format to facilitate transparency and open safeguards. Exit published the world's first guide on assisted suicide, called How to Die With Dignity (1980); followed by Departing Drugs (1993), and the Five Last Acts series. Exit also publishes a Blog with broad-ranging analysis of assisted-suicide related issues.
Final Exit Network
Final Exit Network, Inc. is a nonprofit organization founded in 2004 for the purpose of serving as a resource to individuals seeking information and emotional support in committing suicide as a means to end suffering from chronically painful—though not necessarily terminal—illness.
World Federation of Right to Die Societies
Organizations opposed to assisted suicide
ADAPT - the American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today is a United States organisation that is active in the disability rights movement. The oppose the legalization of physician-assisted suicide, arguing that it is a "violation of the equal protection guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act."
The Euthanasia Prevention Coalition International, founded in 1998 in Canada, is an international organisation opposed to euthanasia and assisted suicide.
Patients' Rights Advocacy Fund
TASH is an international advocacy association of people with disabilities, their family members, other advocates, and people who work in the disability field. The mission of TASH is to promote the full inclusion and participation of children and adults with significant disabilities in every aspect of their community, and to eliminate the social injustices that diminish human rights.
The Russian Orthodox Church Canons consider any form of suicide, except suicides committed out of mental disturbances (insanity), a grave sin and a human fault: "A perpetrator of calculated suicide, who 'did it out of human resentment or other incident of faintheartedness' shall not be granted Christian burial or liturgical commemoration (Timothy of Alexandria, Canon 14).
World Medical Association
The official position of the World Medical Association is: "Physicians-assisted suicide, like euthanasia, is unethical and must be condemned by the medical profession. Where the assistance of the physician is intentionally and deliberately directed at enabling an individual to end his or her own life, the physician acts unethically. However the right to decline medical treatment is a basic right of the patient and the physician does not act unethically even if respecting such a wish results in the death of the patient."
A study approved by the Dutch Ministry of Health, the Dutch Ministry of Justice, and the Royal Dutch Medical Association reviewed the efficacy in 111 cases of physician-aided dying (PAD). This showed that 32% of cases had complications. These included 12% with time to death longer than expected (45 min – 14 days), 9% with problems administering the required drugs, 9% with a physical symptom (e.g. nausea, vomiting, myoclonus) and 2% waking from coma. In 18% of cases the doctors provided euthanasia because of problems or failures with PAD.
The Portland (Oregon) Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Department of Psychiatry at the Oregon Health and Science University set out to assess the prevalence of depression in 58 patients who had chosen PAD. Of 15 patients who went to receive PAD, three (20%) had a clinical depression. All patients who participated in the study were determined in advance to be mentally competent. The authors conclude that the "...current practice of the (Oregon) Death with Dignity Act may fail to protect some patients whose choices are influenced by depression from receiving a prescription for a lethal drug".
In a Dutch study of patients with severe and persistent symptoms requiring sedation, the researchers found that only 9% of patients received a palliative care consultation prior to being sedated.
Attitude of Healthcare professionals
A 1997 anonymous mail study directed by David A. Asch MD, MBA and Michael L. DeKay, Ph.D, sent out surveys to 1,560 United States critical care nurses, and 73% responded about their feelings about euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. The survey investigated the reasons why some critical care nurses were denouncers of the practice, while others were supporters of it. One explanation for why some critical care nurses have sympathetic tendencies towards euthanasia is because "some...see euthanasia as a legitimate response to end human suffering". However, Asch and DeKay cited additional factors that influence health care professionals' attitudes towards euthanasia including religion, religiosity, and age.
In the UK, an extensive survey of 3733 medical physicians in 2009 was sponsored by the National Council for Palliative Care, Age Concern, Help the Hospices, Macmillan Cancer Support, the Motor Neurone Disease Association, the MS Society and Sue Ryder Care. It showed that the proportion against a change in the law was 66% against euthanasia and 65% against assisted suicide. Opposition to euthanasia and PAS was highest amongst Palliative Care and Care of the Elderly specialists, while more than 90% of palliative care specialists are against a change in the law.
In another UK study, by Glasgow University's Institute of Law & Ethics in Medicine, a postal survey of UK medical practitioners and pharmacists, 54% were in favour of a change in the law to allow physician-assisted suicide to take place in specific circumstances, with only 36% against. 60% of the 1000 practitioners who responded had treated a patient who was considering suicide, 12% personally knew another health professional who had assisted a patient to kill themselves and 4% had themselves provided the means (such as drugs or information about lethal acts) to assist a patient to kill themselves. One finding of the second study was that most medical practitioners found physician-assisted suicide preferable to voluntary euthanasia (43% in comparison to 19%), especially in view of the findings of a first study by the University which showed the public's preference for voluntary euthanasia. There was little by way of differences in the percentages of hospital physicians, medical GPs, surgeons or psychiatrists favouring a change in the law – approximately 48% were in favour. This was in stark contrast to the percentage of pharmacists in favour (72%) and anaesthetists (56%). Pharmacists were twice as likely as medical GPs to endorse the view that "if a patient has decided to end their own life then doctors should be allowed in law to assist". (McLean, S., 1997, "Sometimes a Small Victory", Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine, University of Glasgow.)
Evidence shows that physicians already perform euthanasia and assisted suicide in the UK. In a 2009 survey of 8857 physicians, the proportion of UK deaths involving voluntary euthanasia (i.e. at the patient's request) was 0.21% (CI: 0–0.52), and involuntary euthanasia (i.e. without the patient's request) was 0.30% (0–0.60).
The American Medical Association (AMA) is against PAS in general, not so much out of the concern for ethical codes of conduct, but because it is up against the physicians’ professional integrity. In spite of that, many surveys of physicians from more than a decade ago show that majority of them regards PAS morally permissible under specific conditions, while one in five of them will get asked to perform it during the span of his career, and that between five to twenty percent of these requests will actually be granted. (Emanuel, Ezekiel J. "Euthanasia And Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Review Of The Empirical Data From The United States.
Factors that influence physicians' attitudes towards physician-assisted suicide
Area of specialization and experience with terminally ill patients
- Physicians who identify themselves as palliative care professionals are less willing to support the practice of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.
- In a questionnaire to 938 physicians in the State of Washington, USA, hematologists and oncologists, who are the physicians with the most experience in dealing with terminally ill patients, were most likely to oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide, and psychiatrists, who had the least contact with terminally ill patients, were most likely to be supportive of these practices.
Previous engagement in euthanasia and assisted suicide
Those who have previously performed euthanasia or assisted suicide are more likely to view these as ethical practices. In a study on primary care physicians (PCPs) in the Netherlands, many emphasized that the decision regarding euthanasia should be determined towards the beginning of their careers. The older the physician the less likely he or she is to have performed euthanasia or assisted suicide."For every additional year of age the odds of having engaged in euthanasia decrease by 3.1%" Therefore age correlates with attitudes to these practices.
- A study conducted in Australia reported that those who are the most likely to oppose physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia are older, western-educated, Catholic and female.
- Some of the other issues that may deter PCPs from participating in physician-assisted suicide are "their relationship with the patient, their loneliness, the role of the family, and pressure from society."
Resources for further reading
More research can be found on the website of Living and Dying Well UK, an organization who researches and analyzes evidence surrounding end-of-life issues.
Data on the practice of assisted suicide can also be found from the reports produced in the jurisdictions where it is legal. For example, the Oregon Health Authority publishes annual reports detailing the enactment of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.
Improvements in end-of-life decision making
Currently only a small fraction of patients (about 15%) have clear directions in the form of a living will or a health care proxy in place to advise family members or physicians of their end-of-life wishes. This leads to uncomfortable questions if the patient suddenly no longer has the ability to speak for themselves when answers are needed to important medical questions. Even if a patient has selected a proxy they may, "be guilt-ridden, wondering whether they acted too hastily or if their decision was inconsistent with the patient's desires".
In order to preempt some of the difficulties that are associated with end-of-life care many medical schools and nursing programs now stress the importance of early discussions with the patient about their wishes and planning for the future. Unfortunately, since the views concerning physician assisted suicide are so polarized, many doctors are reluctant to discuss withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. In fact, in a recent study of 58 physicians, 19 admitted that they did not feel comfortable discussing end-of-life care with their patients.
In an effort to change the apprehension that is associated with end-of-life care new techniques are being explored to ensure more doctor to patient communication including:
- analyzing the cognitive ability of patients to make their own decisions regarding end-of-life care
- encouraging doctors to initiate end-of-life conversations
- making sure that patients are made fully aware of all options regarding their personal medical treatment
- providing counseling and support for families of patients especially in situations where a decision to remove life support and/or stop treatment is involved
In short, there are two major ways in which the physicians can more easily be made aware of the wishes of their patients. The first simply involves participation in the informed consent process, or "engaging competent patients in comprehensive discussions of treatment options and likely outcomes". The second of these methods involves advance care planning which ensures that patients tell their doctors exactly what they wish to be done in case a medical emergency arises in which they are not able to speak for themselves.
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