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Words Matter: Physician Assisted Suicide Is NOT Physician Aid In Dying

The classic Hippocratic Oath, translated by Heinrich Von Staden, requires a new physician to swear to the following oath:

And I will use regimens for the benefit of the ill in accordance with my ability and my judgment, but from [what is] to their harm or injustice I will keep [them]. And, I will not give a drug that is deadly to anyone if asked [for it], nor will I suggest the way to such a counsel.

A 1964 translation by Louis Lasagna, Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, rephrases the classic oath to say:

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism. I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

A 12th-century Byzantine manuscript of the Oath. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons

Physician-assisted suicide is now legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico. It is under consideration in 13 other states. Along the way, the terminology has moved from “physician-assisted suicide” (PAS) to “physician aid in dying” (PAD). “Suicide” has traditionally conjured up a vision of premature death prompted by despair, impaired judgment and the like. As a result, several professional organizations have objected to the use of the term “suicide,” articulating that this word does not describe those opting to exert control over their end of life under the laws allowing this deliberate choice.

I argue that the true paradigm for physician aid in dying is palliative care, and that physician-assisted suicide is just that- suicide. Palliative care reflects and delivers on the Hippocratic Oath, among the oldest binding documents in history. For those who are terminally ill, it is “physician aid in dying” in its purest sense. Palliative specialists do not send patients on their way with lethal medication which- if following legal requirements- must be self-administered. Palliative specialists do not ask patients to respond to their condition alone; palliative care is patient-centered and collaborative.

Palliative care is specialized medical care for those with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from symptoms and stress of serious illness, and it is not restricted to those with diagnoses of six months or less to live. Its goal is to improve the quality of life for both the patient and his or her family.

Palliative care includes a multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses and others who work together with other providers to provide an extra layer of support to meet personal goals and goals of care, assuring that pain is always managed. A patient is not required to forego curative treatments to receive palliative care; palliative services maintain patient autonomy and control over individual destiny but they do not include killing oneself.

Surveys indicate that 91 percent of those opting for assisted suicide do so to gain control; only 30 percent choose this route due to pain. My earlier article, Is Autonomy All We Really Want?, explores “the space between,” the dialogical encounter and the isolating, frightening aspects of autonomy. A high quality palliative care team can mitigate that aloneness by accompanying patients shoulder to shoulder, respecting their autonomy and goals while providing warmth, sympathy and understanding. Not only do patients benefit from a higher quality of life, but physicians stay true their vow to “avoid…traps…of therapeutic nihilism.”

I argue that the true paradigm for physician aid in dying is palliative care, and that physician-assisted suicide is just that- suicide.

Words matter. Physician-assisted suicide is equivalent to the facilitation of killing. There is no other way to characterize the act. Physician aid in dying in the context of palliative care supports the chronically ill and dying in a respectful, professionally honored tradition. As Leon Kass, physician and Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, states:

In forswearing the giving of poison when asked for it, the Hippocratic   physician rejects the view that patient’s choice for death can make killing him right…the deepest ethical principle restraining the physician’s power is…the dignity and mysterious power of human life itself. A person can choose to be a physician but cannot choose what physicianship means.

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