Dr. Marcia Angell: Ballot question to allow physician aid in dying respects patient wishes

Dr. Marcia Angell/handout
Dr. Marcia Angell/handout

On Nov. 6, in addition to weighing in on the crucial political contests, Massachusetts voters will decide whether physicians may provide a dying patient with medication to bring about an earlier, more peaceful death if the patient chooses. On the ballot will be a Death with Dignity Act that is virtually identical to the law that has been in effect in Oregon for many years. If it passes, it will legalize physician-assisted dying, sometimes called aid in dying. (These terms are favored over the older term, physician-assisted suicide, because they distinguish it from the typical suicide in which a healthy person chooses death over life; here the patient is near death from natural causes anyway, and merely chooses the timing and manner of an inevitable death.)

There are a host of safeguards. First, the Act applies only to adults who are able to make their own decisions. It cannot be used through advance directives, nor by people with limited decision-making capacity. Second, the patient must have a terminal illness, with a life expectancy of no more than six months, as determined by at least two physicians. In addition, the patient must make two oral requests for medication to hasten death, separated by at least 15 days, and one written request, with two witnesses. By definition, the patient must be capable of swallowing the medication—usually barbiturates dissolved in a full glass of liquid—which ensures that it is voluntary. The law does not permit euthanasia, that is, the injection of a lethal medication by a physician or anyone else. If a physician believes a psychiatric condition is impairing the patient’s judgment, the doctor must refer him or her to a psychiatrist or other counselor. No physician is required to participate in assisted dying; he or she may refuse for any reason whatsoever. This is a choice, not a requirement, for both patients and physicians.

Last December, at its interim meeting, the Massachusetts Medical Society reaffirmed its long-standing opposition to physician-assisted dying—finding it “inconsistent with the physician’s role as healer and health care provider,” in the words of President Lynda Young. I will here discuss this and other arguments often made by physician opponents, and explain why I believe they are wrong, both medically and ethically.

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Physicians are only healers. This sees the physician’s role too narrowly and abstractly. Yes, it is all very well to say that physicians should be healers, but suppose healing is not possible? When death is imminent and dying patients find their suffering unbearable, then the physician’s role should shift from healing to relieving suffering in accord with the patient’s wishes. This is not a matter of life versus death, but about the manner of dying, and it’s not primarily about doctors, but about patients.

Physicians should never participate in taking life. Doctors who believe this do not usually object to withdrawing life-sustaining treatment, such as a mechanical ventilator, if requested by a patient or proxy. But they believe that writing a prescription is more active, hence unethical. Here again, this argument focuses too much on physicians and not enough on patients. If we look instead at the patient’s role, we see that assisted dying requires purposeful actions on the part of the patient, whereas a mechanical ventilator could be disconnected from an unconscious patient. Even some doctors who believe assisted dying is sometimes warranted think they should not write the prescription, but outsource it to someone else. This is a form of abandonment, in which doctors prize their self-image above the patient’s needs.

Patients who request assisted dying may be suffering from treatable depression. The diagnosis of depression is difficult because the symptoms overlap with those of terminal illness, and dying naturally produces sadness. Moreover, there are no good studies of the effectiveness of therapy in this setting. Nevertheless, the act requires physicians to refer patients for counseling if they believe a patient’s judgment is impaired by depression or another psychiatric condition, and that is a common reason doctors give for denying requests in Oregon.

Permitting assisted dying will put us on a “slippery slope,” leading to abuses, such as using the law for patients who are not terminally ill or who are especially vulnerable—for example, the uninsured. The best answers come from Oregon, where the law has been used sparingly (most requests are refused) and exactly as intended. (For details, see the Oregon Health Authority’s Division of Public Health reports.) Assisted dying there has accounted for 596 deaths over 14 years, only 0.2 percent of all deaths in the most recent year. Most patients were suffering from metastatic cancer, and the prognosis was clear. Far from being vulnerable, they were relatively affluent, well-educated, and well-insured, and nearly all were receiving hospice care at the time of their request. About a third who requested medication did not use it, but kept it at hand because it provided peace of mind. No law works absolutely perfectly, but this one seems to come about as close as possible.

Good palliative care can relieve all suffering, so permitting assisted dying is unnecessary. Probably most dying patients, even when suffering greatly, would choose to live as long as possible. That courage and grace should be protected and honored, and we should put every effort into treating their symptoms. (Palliative care in Oregon is among the best in the country.) But not all suffering can be relieved. Most pain can, but other symptoms can be harder to deal with—symptoms such as weakness, loss of control of bodily functions, shortness of breath, and nausea—and the drugs to treat them often produce side effects that are as debilitating as the problems they treat. Even worse for many patients is the existential suffering. They know that their condition will grow worse day after day until their deaths, that their course is inexorably downhill, and they find it meaningless to soldier on. Why should anyone—the state, the medical profession, or anyone else—presume to tell someone else how much suffering they must endure while dying? Doctors should stand with their patients, not against them.

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