Saturday, August 4, 2012

Massachusetts Doctors Debate Assisted Suicide

On election day in November, Massachusetts will also vote on a referendum on assisted suicide - or, as its supporters call it, "assisted dying." On July 31 Boston Globe featured parallel statements by a leading advocate of the measure and a leading foe.

Marcia Angell is a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and a senior lecturer in social medicine at Harvard Medical School. She argues that because the proposed bill, which is "virtually identical" to Oregon's Death with Dignity law, has already been found roadworthy there, Massachusetts voters should have no hesitation in supporting it.

Although the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) staunchly opposes assisted suicide, Dr Angell believes conventional arguments, like "physicians are only healers", "physicians should never participate in taking life", and "patients who request assisted dying may be suffering from treatable depression", are wrong. She acknowledges that palliative care can relieve pain in most cases, but, she says, existential suffering can be even worse for patients:

"They know that their condition will grow worse day after day until their deaths, that their course is inexorably downhill, and they find it meaningless to soldier on. Why should anyone -- the state, the medical profession, or anyone else -- presume to tell someone else how much suffering they must endure while dying? Doctors should stand with their patients, not against them."

Barbara A.Rockett, a physician at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and a former president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, argues that "To substitute physician-assisted suicide for care represents an abandonment of the patient by the physician."

Rockett reminds readers that, by and large, doctors do not support assisted suicide. In Massachusetts, more than 75% of member of the MMS oppose it. And this is true at a national level as well. At a meeting in 2003, the AMA went on record to say, "Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would impose serious societal risks." She concludes:

"Physician-assisted suicide has been falsely advertised as death with dignity. Believe me, there is nothing dignified about suicide. I ask the voters of this Commonwealth, as they enter the voting booth, to vote for dignity for life and not for death. Please vote no on physician-assisted suicide."

What is at stake? If Massachusetts voters approve the referendum, other New England states could follow suit. The Massachusetts Medical Society is the oldest of its kind in the United States and the publisher of the New England Journal of Medicine, the nation's leading medical journal.

1 comment:

tigrlily said...

It's worth noting that major disability rights organizations oppose assisted suicide. People with terminal illness nearly always have a disability, and in practice, assisted suicide reaches far beyond people with terminal illness. People with disabilities have a great deal of experience with the health care system, and see first-hand how things can go wrong. The claim that assisted suicide enables people to "control their lives" ring false when people lack the services and supports necessary to live independently in their own homes. Finally, the "safeguards" that assisted suicide laws provide are ineffective. These laws protect doctors from liability better than they protect potential users from abuse, coercion, and financial pressure to choose the cheapest and easiest option for families and insurance companies.