The issue of physician suicide has been on the public agenda in the United States for the past 25 years or more. Legitimate worries about medical overtreatment, unnecessary suffering and loss of dignity have motivated a growing number of Americans to consider this issue more favorably. People are rightly concerned about loosing control over what happens to them once they enter the hospital when the are very sick and risk dying. Instead of being at the mercy of technological forces beyond their control, free individuals want to have a say over how they make the final exit from life. The key factor, in my opinion, is more about self-control than it is about actually the strong desire to take a lethal dose of medications at the time of the patient’s choosing. But let’s be clear what we are talking about.
Oregon was the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, which occurred in 1994 in the Death With Dignity Act. This law gives patients with capacity facing a clearly diagnosable terminal illness within 6 months or less to live the right to receive (and the right of the physician to prescribe) a prescription for a lethal dose of medication for the expressed purpose of ending their lives at the time of their choosing. Because we have had many years to collect empirical data about the effects of this law, we can use Oregon as a case study. As of 2011, 935 people have had prescriptions and 596 have died from ingesting medications they received based on this law. For about 90% of these patients, the primary concern about end of life care was “loss of autonomy”, but “inability to make life enjoyable” and “loss of dignity” were also major concerns. Moreover, based on the data, there is no evidence of any kind of abuse to any particular segment of the population, as some feared might happen. In fact the utilization rate of hospice care is up. Following Oregon, Washington and Montana also have legalized physician-assisted suicide and we will have to wait and see the data of these laws continue to yield generally positive results. But overall the data gathered so far supports physician-assisted suicide a beneficial service.
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