Physician-assisted dying: Has the pendulum swung too far?

When a terminally ill but mentally competent patient wishes to die, should a physician be allowed to bring about such wish? The California legislature is considering that question, and physicians will soon be asked to weigh in on it. Until recently, so-called “physician-assisted dying” (PAD) garnered little support among doctors. Currently, however, enthusiasm in its favor is growing. What are the reasons given to justify this emerging practice? Do they truly warrant legal sanction? And do they justify an about-face from the medical profession’s long-held stance on this matter?

Supporters of PAD claim to be motivated by compassion and respect for patient autonomy. Even under such pretexts, however, PAD contradicts the essential role of the physician and confuses the public about the goals and worthiness of the medical profession.

To begin with, compassion is a willingness to suffer with patients, not to eliminate them. According to PAD’s proponents, this practice constitutes neither homicide nor suicide, since the patient is predictably dying from a terminal disease. But if that is the case, isn’t the disease, rather than the patient, benefiting from the doctor’s assistance?

A physician may believe that PAD compassionately puts an end to the suffering of the terminally ill. Many people also believe in the possibility of an afterlife. Can the doctor involved in PAD assure the patient that wellbeing will ensue? Obviously not. Shouldn’t this uncertainty, then, be part of the informed consent? Or, if that sounds absurd, isn’t it wiser to leave the timing of death and its aftermath to nature and to one’s God? Doing otherwise necessarily invites an overstepping of established professional boundaries.

At times, and with appeal to compassion, supporters of PAD call upon doctors to specifically effect a less agonizing death. There is precedent for this practice. For example, some physicians participate in capital punishment, allegedly to ensure that various lethal infusions are delivered in the least painful manner. But PAD amounts to merely prescribing an overdose of a sedative. Clinical training is unnecessary, and physician engagement boils down to a basically legal, not medical, role.

To justify PAD under pretext of respect for autonomy is faulty as well. According to surveys, fear of losing control over one’s mind and body, and fear of becoming a burden to others, are the main perceived indignities that prompt some terminally ill patients to seek PAD. But should the doctor agree with these despairing perceptions without applying a measure of objectivity?

Hospice care expert Ira Byock has shown that among the terminally ill, fear of burdening others is invariably short-sighted. Families and friends need to tend the dying person as a material expression of love. Burdensome as it may be, the care provided serves a therapeutic function in the grieving process and provides an unexpected opportunity to heal troubled relationships. Fear of burdening others is, therefore, subject to change, and the physician can play an effective role in alleviating the patient’s apprehension.

And whether terminally ill patients are supported by loved ones or not, the compassionate and socially constructive response to feelings of unworthiness is to do everything possible to dissipate those feelings. A physician who validates a patient’s fear of losing control over mind and body implicitly devalues anyone with a serious disability — including the terminally ill.

Respect for patient autonomy is essential to a sound patient-doctor bond. It acknowledges that health and disease have a subjective dimension and tempers the prerogatives of physicians who, by necessity, are invested with social or legal authority. As an ethical principle, respect for autonomy has been explicitly promoted since the 1970’s, in response to a then-common attitude of “paternalism” that disregarded the patient’s right to choose. But has the pendulum swung too far?

PAD now fits an environment in which doctors tolerate the label of “provider,” and patient care is increasingly conducted like a mere economic transaction. Under these conditions, “The customer is always right” naturally replaces “First do no harm” as the foremost expression of our professionalism. But when “Your body, your choice” finally rules the day, are there any principles left to be professed?

Providing death for the patient invites death for the medical profession. The wave of PAD legalization sweeping the country might well enact poetic justice, allowing the demise of patients who no longer value their lives and of physicians who no longer understand their role.

Michel Accad is a cardiologist and founder, Athletic Heart of San Francisco.  He blogs at Alert & Oriented.  This article originally appeared in San Francisco Medicine. 

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