Give Me Liberty, Give Me Death - Physician Assisted Suicide

When Patrick Henry issued his legendary cry, was this the patriotic war call of a revolutionary, or the stifled plea of a suicidal? Though the modern euthanasia, or assisted suicide, movements did not find their way into the United States until 1938, suicide has long lived in the hearts of men desiring freedom. Early Christians, known as the Donatists, often marched into Roman courts or stopped a passersby and demanded death and a place among the martyrs. Even Jean Rousseau, upon whose Enlightenment-era political writings this nation’s government was based, promoted that, “when our life... becomes a misery to ourselves and is of advantage to no one, we are at liberty to put an end to our being.” More recently, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the eve of his assassination, so fittingly declared, “no one is truly free to live until one is free to die.” And with anti-assisted-suicide laws being passed in Michigan and elsewhere, the freedom to control one’s own life has truly become an issue of liberty and death.

The American society at large is noticeably uncomfortable with death. So when, in 1991, a high percentage of people found themselves faced with the news that Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a respected physician, had begun assisting terminally ill people to end their lives respectably, the American society at large shouted in outrage. Though all of Dr. Kevorkian’s “victims” have been competent adults who sought him out, he soon came to bear the derogatory moniker “Dr. Death” and has, to date, been charged with the murders of eleven people, due to the Michigan bans on physician-assisted suicide. Fortunately, the courts have seen fit to acquit Dr. Kevorkian on all of these unconstitutional charges. On the flip side, the same courts have declared that the ban on assisted suicide stands. The United States Supreme Court has declined to hear the case until recently. A poll, taken by the EPIC/MRA in late August of 1996, of over 600 active voters in Michigan found only 28% feel Kevorkian has been wrong in assisting suicide, and a mere 22% support laws prohibiting his aid in dying. Thirty-nine percent, however, support Dr. Kevorkian completely, and 41% feel the government should stay out of the issue.

Exactly what is this issue that so offends the government? Euthanasia, which usually involves the prescription and possible administration of lethal dosages of drugs to the terminally ill by physicians of their choice, means, literally, “good death.” The movement also bears another name: death with dignity. Since the advent, in the last decade, of the Living Will, the terminally ill have been able to control their death by demanding the unplugging of all life support machines. The only step past this is to bypass the hospital altogether. Many terminally ill people do not want the last memories of themselves to be those of a weak, dying decrepit. The assisted suicide and euthanasia movements provide for these situations. They allow people to control their life, and their death, and allow those final memories to be those of a strong, living character. This fear of dying without dignity must weigh heavily on the older generation, as they have the highest suicide rate of any other age group.

Physician-aided suicide seems the least harmful means to end a life of suffering. Even now, however, the American Medical Association disapproves. Not surprising, considering that until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to the contrary, the AMA disapproved of abortion. Then, following the decision, they miraculously saw the error of their ways and reversed their position. Thusly, the AMA consistently backs down from controversy. In the case of physician-assisted suicide, their position, according to a letter written by AMA general counsel, Kirk Johnson, to Michigan Attorney General, Frank Kelley, on October 10, 1995, states that, “physicians must not act with the intent of causing the death of their patients. Physician-assisted suicide is simply incompatible with the physician’s role as healer. ...[P]hysicians must relieve [a terminally ill patient’s] suffering by providing adequate comfort care.” Never to be tied to one decision in a matter this controversial, however, the letter goes on to state that, “[t]his obligation is paramount: it is ethical for physicians to provide effective pain medication even if the medication may have the side effect of suppressing respiration and hastening death.” So obviously, the AMA has decided it is inherently wrong for a physician to end a life of suffering, unless of course the patient feels good before he dies.

At a press conference on December 4, 1995, a group of Michigan doctors and specialists, known as Physicians for Mercy, announced a set of guidelines they had approved for physician-assisted suicide. In order to set forth the actions, a request must be written, dated, signed and notarized by the patient, a doctor and two witnesses having no financial relationship with the patient. The patient will then be referred to a specialist in the patient’s specific illness, a pain specialist and a psychiatrist, to assure the patient’s mental competence and to “verify that the affliction is incurable, that agony cannot be relieved or controlled, and/or that the side effects of pain management or medical therapy are intolerable for the patient.” The time and site of the final procedure must be decided by the patient within three weeks of the aforementioned reviews, and must be witnessed and notarized as the initial request. The final procedure will be performed by an obiatrist, a doctor specific to these procedures, within 72 hours of the signing of informed consent, but no sooner than 24 hours. There will be no professional fee charged for the service. Dr. Kevorkian has already come forth and agreed to follow these approved guidelines, and any other doctor who does such will undoubtably be performing a responsible and merciful action.

The American Medical Association, while continuously regarded the “experts,” represents only a very small percentage of the doctors in the US. Despite the legal hold on aid in dying, a 1996 study of over 800 American critical care nurses showed nearly one in five admitted to hastening their patients’ death when requested: 16% by performing active euthanasia and 4% by performing passive euthanasia, or withholding treatment. A poll taken by the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine in February 1996 of over 850 physicians in that area of medicine revealed that an outstanding 96% had discontinued critical care treatments with the expectation that the patient would die.

The US government and the “official” medical community, however, refuse to condone a practice that is both ethical and practical, regardless of the opinions of the professional community as a whole. This doubtlessly stems from two reasons. First of all, none can deny the existence of the overpowering Judeo-Christian code of ethics governing American officialdom. For example, the Hippocratic oath, that which the American Medical Association recommends to all new doctors, is a religious oath and has nothing to do with medicine. As Dr. Kevorkian himself said, in a speech to the American Humanist Association after receiving the 1994 Humanist Hero Award, “If you meet a physician who says, `Life is sacred,’ be careful. We didn’t study sanctity in medical school. You are talking to a theologian first, probably a businessperson second, and a physician third.” The second, and more obvious reason, of course, is money, that which makes the wheels of American society spin. During the last few months and years of a terminally ill person’s suffering, enough pain medication and treatments are prescribed to earn the pharmaceutical industry billions of dollars. Were the terminally ill patient to take his life, and death, into his own hands and end his suffering early and with dignity, the medical “profession” would lose those billions of dollars. This, in turn, might cut short their purchases of third and fourth sports cars and vacation homes.

The United States government, hand in hand with big business, has slowly been devouring rights inherent to humanity. Still we praise this nation as our very deaths fall out of our hands. The terminally ill have a right to die with a scrap of dignity left in them, and there is no more responsible way to die than with the full cooperation of the men in whose hands most of us place our complete faith. Yet their hands are tied on this issue by red tape. Who will wipe their tears as patients they have helped for years wither away and die in the most pitiful manners possible, and they have nothing to do but ignore their pleas or watch helplessly?