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The Ethical Implications and Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide

Toward the final stages of terminal illness, the physician’s focus shifts from lengthening their patient’s lifespan to making them the most comfortable they can be in the end stages of life. However, during this time, many patients feel that the best option for them is to end their lives due to their pain. To combat this situation, physician-assisted suicide became a solution, giving physicians the ability to provide their patients with lethal medication that they may take at any time of their choosing. However, there are many ethical implications associated with this practice.

Giving physicians the power to prescribe fatal medication to their patients changes the patient-physician dynamic. A good patient-physician relationship requires that the physician place their patient’s welfare over their obligations to others and their self-interest. Physicians are trusted to make sound decisions on their patient’s behalf. In cases of terminal illness, however, this dynamic changes; Physicians no longer have control over the patient’s welfare. In going forward, physicians may choose to have an end-of-life discussion with their patient and/or offer palliative care. Assisted suicide is a much different discussion.

The role of giving patients lethal medication is often seen to be incompatible with a physician’s role as a healer. A physician’s job is to diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses. Presenting a patient with the option of assisted suicide is beyond a physician’s duties. Though patients may find assisted suicide to be a solution to their problems of pain and feeling burdensome to their caretakers, asking their physicians to end their life may also be asking them to oppose their morals.

The ethical discussion of physician-assisted suicide is only important in determining its legalization, which is all dependent on each state. If a state legalizes such practice, it may allow its residents to receive the medication, but it cannot force physicians to participate. Assisted suicide may infringe on some of the morals of physicians. According to Gregory Hamilton, MD, co-founder and past president of Physicians for Compassionate Care, “It's up to the medical profession—not Judge Jones or the voters of Oregon—to decide what's a legitimate medical practice.” As important as the ethical discussion of physician-assisted suicide may be, it is ultimately the state’s and physician’s decision to allow such practice.

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