In this series of articles, our medical students will discuss a range of topics from medical ethics to the NHS to public health to medical conditions to clinical governance
Should physician-assisted suicide be allowed in some situations?
Physician assisted suicide is the medical practice that occurs when a physician prescribes or administers lethal medication to their patients for them to use at a time of their own choosing. This is different to euthanasia, which is when the physician directly intervenes to end the patient’s life. If we look at the 4 pillars of medical ethics, one of the roles of a physician is to do no harm to their patients, which has been interpreted in different ways by different people. Some people believe that this includes keeping the patients alive until they die a natural death. Others believe that it means allowing patients to have the choice of whether they live or die. It is only legal in certain countries, including Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Colombia, Switzerland and part of the US and Australia. Assisted suicide is illegal under the terms of the Suicide Act (1961) and is punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment in the UK.
There are, of course, benefits and risks of physician-assisted suicide. Let’s look at the case of Noel Conway, a 67-year-old retired lecturer who suffered from motor neurone disease. He wanted the law of physician-assisted suicide to be changed so that he could have the choice to have a ‘peaceful and dignified’ death. He was told that if he wanted to die, his only choice was to suffocate to death by removing his ventilator, but there is no way to know how long it would take for him to die this way and therefore it could be a cruel and sufferable death. He argued that he should have the choice of how he dies. Unfortunately, he lost his case in court. This sparks up a few pros of having physician assisted suicide. It would allow people suffering from terminal illness to die as they choose to, rather than dying in an undignified, protracted, painful way.
A reason why physician-assisted suicide can be better than euthanasia is that there is no longer a burden of guilt experienced by the patient. They don’t feel like they have put a burden on their family as they are able to get the lethal medication for themselves.
Next, lets move on to some of the cons of physician-assisted suicide. Firstly, it could force some doctors to prescribe this lethal medication without their consent. The doctor may have the opinion that physician-assisted suicide is wrong, and therefore may be reluctant to give the medication, making the patient feel that their doctor isn’t doing what is right for them. Secondly, people choose death for other reasons other than the quality of their health. Therefore, this system could be taken advantage of, and people could take this medication for other reasons, which could be very dangerous. Thirdly, the patient could have received an inaccurate survival estimate. Therefore, taking the lethal medication could have cut their lives short for no reason.
The debate goes further than the points I have provided here. If asked about this in an interview, make sure that you can weigh up the pros and cons equally on each side, and make sure to regard the four pillars of medical ethics.