Assisted Dying: Experts Debate Doctor's Role

Peggy Sutherland was ready to die. The morphine oozing from a pump in her spine was no match for the pain of lung cancer, which had evaded treatment and invaded her ribs.

"She needed so much morphine it would have rendered her basically unconscious," said Sutherland's daughter, Julie McMurchie, who lives in Portland, Ore. "She was just kind of done."

Sutherland, 68, decided to use Oregon's "Death With Dignity Act," which allows terminally-ill residents to end their lives after a 15-day requisite waiting period by self-administering a lethal prescription drug.

"Her doctor wrote the prescription and met my husband and me at the pharmacy on the 15th day," said McMurchie, recalling how her mother "didn't want to wait," she said. "Then he came back to the house, and he stayed with us until her heart stopped beating."

But not all doctors are on board with the law. In the 15 years since Oregon legalized physician-assisted dying, only Washington and Montana have followed suit, a resistance some experts blame on the medical community.

"I think it has to do with the role of physicians in the process," said Dr. Lisa Lehmann, director of the Center for Bioethics at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "Prescribing a lethal medication with the explicit intent of ending life is really at odds with the role of a physician as a healer."

More than two-thirds of American doctors object to physician-assisted suicide, according to a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care. And in an editorial published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, Lehmann argues that removing doctors from assisted dying could make it more available to patients.

"I believe patients should have control over the timing of death if they desire. And I suggest rethinking the role of physicians in the process so we can respect patient choices without doing something at odds with the integrity of physicians," she said.

Instead of prescribing the life-ending medication, physicians should only be responsible for diagnosing patients as terminally ill, Lehmann said. Terminally ill patients should then be able to pick up the medication from a state-approved center, similar to medical marijuana dispensaries.

But assisted dying advocates say doctors should be involved in the dying.

"Patients deserve to have their physician accompany them there and not walk away," said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of the Denver nonprofit Compassion and Choices.

Coombs Lee, a nurse-turned-lawyer and chief petitioner for the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, said decisions about death should be no different than other treatment decisions.

"Physicians don't walk away from patients who make other intentional decisions to advance death, such as refusing a ventilator or a pacemaker," she said. "Why walk away from a terminally ill patient requesting life-ending medication?"

McMurchie agrees.

"Anything that improves access to assisted dying is a step forward," she said. "But I think shepherding patients through their final days is a huge part of a physician's responsibility."

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