Physician-Assisted Suicide: Killing People with Kindness
Adrian Caiazzo (PPS ‘24)
Less than 50 years ago, a diagnosis of smallpox would have been considered a death sentence. However, due to advances in medicine, this once devastating disease has been completely eradicated. Modern medicine has lowered death rates, helped people avoid disability, and overall has produced a healthier society. Despite the good it has done, advances in medicine have turned death into dying. Doctors turn to medicines, procedures, and more, attempting to add more years to a patient’s life and avoid death. However, these added years are often at the expense of both the patient and their families. For this reason, physician-assisted suicide should be legalized for terminally ill patients in the state of North Carolina.
Throughout the nation, the push to legalize physician assisted suicide, known as the death with dignity movement, has gained significant traction. In North Carolina, numerous bills legalizing physician assisted suicide have been drafted, yet none have passed. In 2021, HB 789, known as The North Carolina End of Life Options Act, was introduced with bipartisan support. For this bill to succeed where others have failed, we must realize the importance of physician-assisted suicide.
For a terminally ill patient, the time nearing the end of their life is one filled with immense suffering. Not only are they in intense physical pain, they must deal with the mental anguish of leaving their family behind, knowing they’re going to die but not knowing when. While palliative care through the use of morphine exists, many patients experience side effects such as hallucinations, nausea, and constipation. As a result, many patients are resistant to continue treatment. They’re left to suffer, waiting for the day that they will finally die.
The concept of physician-assisted suicide is rather controversial. While it has attracted broad support, many doctors are opposed to the idea. They cite that their role as doctors is to “do no harm,” and this practice is in direct violation of that. The idea that helping a patient end their own life is harmful is extremely flawed. Personally, I think it is harmful to watch a patient suffer and do nothing. If this is what a patient wants, a doctor should not stand in their way. Doctors are simply projecting their own feelings about death on to the patient, to the patient’s detriment.
For some reason, there is a broad fixation on the number of years a person lives being equivalent to the quality of a person’s life. However, this could not be further from the truth. Doctors are so preoccupied by keeping a patient alive, they fail to see the harm being done by continuing to try new treatments and medications.
As humans, we have a right to self-determination. Denying a person the ability to choose when they’re going to die, when they know that death is imminent, is inherently unjust. It’s not the decision of a doctor, nor a hospital administrator, nor a politician, but of a patient. At a certain point, the suffering they experience makes it so the life they’re living doesn’t even constitute a life anymore. Only a patient knows where this line is, and thus they should make the decision for themselves.
Opponents fear that if bills legalizing physician assisted suicide are passed, deaths resulting from this practice will run rampant, and I don’t blame them. Previous bills lacked appropriate safeguards; they didn’t require for patients to undergo psychiatric evaluation, and there was limited, if any, oversight. However, these things are needed to ensure the practice is done in a safe way, so that no malpractice can occur.
One state where physician-assisted suicide has been successfully implemented is Oregon. In 2020, 370 people received prescriptions, and 245 died from using them. Clearly, just because a patient has the option to undergo physician-assisted suicide, doesn’t mean they will pursue it. Instead of attempting to figure out how we would want a patient to end their lives, we should instead focus upon providing as much comfort as possible. We need to offer physician-assisted suicide as an option, allowing patients to take death in their own hands.
Let’s be clear — I’m not advocating for euthanasia or a medical version of the purge. What I am advocating for is a practice that will grant terminally ill patients relief during a time of such immense suffering. The claim that physician-assisted suicide violates the obligation of doctors is nonsensical. Watching a patient suffer through the last days of their lives and doing nothing is the real harm.
Adrian Caiazzo (PPS ‘24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.