Free Essays on Euthanasia: Assisted Suicide Violates the Physicians' Oath

Free Essays on Euthanasia: Assisted Suicide Violates the Physicians' Oath

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Assisted Suicide Violates the Physicians' Oath


A patient falls ill in one of Voltaire's philosophical tales and the

author observes: "Despite the attention and ministrations of the leading

medical doctors of Europe, he survived."


This is the sardonic wit we should apply to a debate today: Should a

physician who has sworn to do no harm be allowed, legally, to help a

patient kill himself with prescribed lethal doses of barbiturates? This is

not about Dr. Kevorkian, the infamous Dr. Death, now serving a prison term

for murder. The courts finally would not accept his oxymoronic euphemism

of "assisted suicide." (You can wound the language as well as the person.)


Physicians in Oregon, however, can become doctors of death under state

law, having received the imprimatur of the people in a statewide

referendum. But such doctors still need the help of the feds. Federal law

trumps state law in the administration of drugs under the Controlled

Substances Act, which governs powerful prescription drugs like morphine

that alleviate pain, but which can also kill.

Loophole-lovers, aware of the problem, sought a federal accomplice for

"assisted suicide" in Oregon and found one in Janet Reno, the attorney

general in the Clinton administration. She gave them a pass, promising not

to prosecute. John Ashcroft, who replaced her, has reversed that, and a

federal judge has stayed his decision, at least temporarily.


There are two issues here. One is philosophical in its consideration of

life and death issues. The other is legalistic and constitutional, whether

a state's rights in this matter should supersede federal authority. Like

most of our most complex decisions, liberal and conservative attitudes

conflict and overlap. Black and white reasoning is simplistic and

inadequate. There are shades of gray in both arguments. (There's no

rainbow here.)

Certain professors of medicine argue that when a patient is dying in great

pain, and chooses to end both pain and life, a doctor in good conscience

should be able to relieve the agony and abide by the patient's wishes. But

even if the doctor doesn't intend for a patient to die, he can

accidentally kill if he administers dosages high enough to alleviate

excruciating pain.


Hence, John Ashcroft's policy could make doctors fear prosecution,

curtailing their ability even to prescribe the necessary dosages for pain

medication. Consider what you would want for your mother or father, your

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child or your husband or wife, or even yourself, when pain drains human

dignity in those last hours of life.

On the other hand, no one should be licensed to kill. This is the argument

of a coalition of groups that have contended vigorously against such laws

in state legislatures, and includes many doctors and nurses as well as

hospice workers, disability rights activists, pro-life supporters and

various defenders of the poor. They argue that the sanctity of life is

paramount and worry about the potential for abuse of patients who are most

vulnerable to pressures of family, the cost of care, psychological guilt,

and the work of "do gooders" who consider themselves to be saviors or

saints in reducing suffering.


The strongest argument against the Ashcroft decision, it seems to me, is

that doctors would be inhibited from prescribing necessary doses of

morphine to eliminate pain because they fear prosecution. The attorney

general has specifically said - and assured the Oregon Medical Association

- that excessive scrutiny of doctors' prescriptions for morphine use would

not be initiated by the federal government.

In states that have outlawed assisted suicide, such as Michigan, Louisiana

and Rhode Island, the evidence shows that doctors have actually increased

their use of morphine in alleviating pain.


There's a persuasive argument for states' rights, since Oregon voters

twice affirmed by wide margins their decision to approve of "assisted

suicide." But the attorney general based his decision on an 8-0 U.S.

Supreme Court decision (United States vs. Oakland Cannabis Buyers'

Cooperative) that California could legalize medical marijuana, but that

such legalization could not prevent the federal government from enforcing

federal law that disallows the use of marijuana. The court convincingly

backs up John Ashcroft's decision.


The specter of death hovers close over us as we mourn those who died at

the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and now the hundreds of

Dominicans who died in the crash of another airliner in New York City.

Fear of death assumes a new urgency in the age of terrorism. The values

that sanctify life seem all the more precious.


Ultimately, "assisted suicide" is not so much the slippery slope as the

complete contradiction of the ancient physicians' oath to preserve life -

and to insure that death be not proud.


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