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When I ask my medical ethics students whether they support physician assisted suicide (in the sense of the physician prescribing a deadly dose of a drug, usually barbituates, for the patient to take when he wishes), the vast majority raise their hands. Even most students in my classes who oppose abortion support physician assisted suicide (PAS). To me this is disturbing, especially since the strongest support for PAS has been in my class of future physician assistants.

What is so wrong, you may ask, about physician assisted suicide? After all, even with ideal pain control, some terminally ill patients either remain in a great deal of pain or have to be totally sedated. Why not allow such patients to “control the time and manner of their own deaths?” Surely PAS will encourage more dignified deaths among patients in intractable pain. And in referendums, Oregon and Washington have passed laws permitting PAS. Shouldn’t this practice spread to other states?

Although PAS sounds attractive, its practice would be a fundamental distortion of the proper goals of medical practice. The internal goods of medicine include restoring a patient to health, and when a patient cannot be restored to health, to make that patient as comfortable as possible. But supporting a patient’s suicide indirectly involves the physician in killing a patient. Physicians have a great deal of power over patients, power which, if misused, can lead to pain, suffering, and death–as the Nazi medical experiments and the Tuskegee Syphillis Experiment revealed. Now a physician can withhold or withdraw medical care that is only prolonging the dying process. The goal is not to hasten death per se, but to relieve the patient’s suffering. But prescribing a deadly dosage of a drug is designed to let the patient hasten his death. One may say that the motive is to relieve suffering, but there is a difference between allowing the disease process to take its course and giving a drug so a patient can actively commit suicide. This abuse of medical power has already spread in the Netherlands, where PAS is legal, to doctors actively killing patients without the patient’s permission or the patient’s family’s permission. Once the line forbidding a physician from assisting in a patient’s death is crossed, it will be difficult to turn back. Doctors participating in PAS will not be practicing medicine, but doing something else entirely–being accessories to suicide.

There is an assumption in the modern world that pain is the worst thing that a person can experience. That was not the view of the premodern world. Socrates was willing to suffer pain and death to keep his integrity. The early Christians suffered excruciating torture via persecution–they believed that they were sharing in the sufferings of Christ. And without modern pain control methods, people suffered far more from diseases than they do today, yet the drive for PAS is a modern movement (David Hume was among the first to defend suicide as an option in a person in great pain). This does not mean that we should not try to stop pain as much as possible short of actively killing the patient or giving the patients the means to suicide. Relieving suffering is a moral obligation of physicians as long as medical power does not cross over the line into aiding a patient in his active demise. Even in this post-Christian world, would secularists really want doctors to cross the line into PAS? Could PAS be controlled once the genie is out of the bottle? I do not believe so–but even if PAS is the only line that is crossed, it remains inimical to the ends of medicine and is wrong.