For many of us, the issue of physician-assisted suicide was brought to our attention last year with the very public illness and death of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman who chose to end her own life with a lethal prescription after receiving a diagnosis of an aggressive form of cancer.
This pains me in so many ways, not the least of which is that it compounds the heartbreak of a horrible, terminal illness with the tragic choice of a young woman to take her own life.
In what I fear could lead to many similar tragedies, this year legislators in a number of states, including my own state of Colorado, will introduce bills aimed at legalizing doctor-prescribed death.
Today I’ve invited Dr. William Toffler as a guest blogger on this issue. He’s a family physician and professor of Family Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. As a doctor in Oregon, he’s seen firsthand the unfortunate ways in which physician-assisted suicide has played out–in a state where it’s been legal for some time now.
Dr. Toffler is a great friend to this ministry and a member of Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council. Adding even more weight to his words is the fact that he doesn’t address this topic as a disinterested expert.
This past summer, Marlene, Dr. Toffler’s wife of 40 years, died from cancer. He and his family chose to honor and value Marlene’s life by walking through her final days with her, providing her all possible comfort.
Dr. Toffler and his family know very intimately that doctor-assisted suicide isn’t the only answer to a terminal illness, and it’s definitely not the best answer. I’ll leave you with Dr. Toffler’s post.
There has been a profound shift in attitude in my state of Oregon since voters narrowly embraced physician-assisted suicide 20 years ago. It’s a shift that, I believe, has been detrimental to our patients, degraded the quality of medical care, and compromised the integrity of my profession.
Since doctor-assisted suicide has become an option, I have had more than two dozen patients discuss this option with me in my practice. Most of the patients who have broached this issue didn’t have a terminal diagnosis.
One of my first encounters with this kind of request came from a patient with a progressive form of multiple sclerosis. He was in a wheelchair yet lived a very active life. In fact, he was a general contractor and quite productive. While I was seeing him, I asked him about how it affected his life. He acknowledged that ms was a major challenge and told me that if he got too much worse, he might want to “just end it.”
“It sounds like you are telling me this because you might ultimately want assistance with your own suicide if things got worse,” I said. He nodded affirmatively, and seemed relieved that I seemed to really understand.
I told him that I could readily understand his fear and his frustration and even his belief that physician-assisted suicide might be a good option for him. At the same time, I told him that should he become sicker or weaker, I would work to give him the best care and support available. I told him that no matter how debilitated he might become, that, at least to me, his life was, and would always be, inherently valuable. As such, I would not recommend, nor could I participate in his suicide. He simply said, “Thank you.”
The truth is that we are not islands. How physicians respond to the patient’s request has a profound effect, not only on a patient’s choices, but also on their view of themselves and their inherent worth.
When a patient says, “I want to die”; it may simply mean, “I feel useless.”
When a patient says, “I don’t want to be a burden”; it may really be a question, “Am I a burden?”
When a patient says, “I’ve lived a long life already”; they may really be saying, “I’m tired. I’m afraid I can’t keep going.”
And, finally, when a patient says, “I might as well be dead”; they may really be saying, “No one cares about me.”
Most problematic for me has been the change in attitude within the healthcare system itself. People with serious illnesses are now sometimes fearful of the motives of doctors or consultants. Some time ago, a patient with bladder cancer contacted me. She was concerned that an oncologist might be one of the “death doctors.” She questioned his motives—particularly when she obtained a second opinion from another oncologist who was more positive about her prognosis and treatment options. Whether one or the other consultant was correct or not, such fears were never an issue before physician-assisted suicide was legalized.
In Oregon, I regularly receive notices that many important services and drugs for my patients—even some pain medications—won’t be paid for by the State health plan. At the same time, doctor-assisted suicide is fully covered and sanctioned by the State of Oregon and by our collective tax dollars.
I hope and pray that the citizens and leaders of other states will reject legalized assisted suicide as an easy answer to illness and suffering. Don’t make Oregon’s mistake—our sick and aging loved ones deserve better.
I appreciate Dr. Toffler’s perspective. I realize that assisted suicide is being pushed as a matter of “compassion” and “choice,” but rushing to end the life of a suffering person, by the very nature of the act, devalues that life.
By the way, I mentioned Brittany Maynard at the beginning of this post. Kara Tippett is a courageous 38-year-old mom of four who is also dealing with aggressive cancer. Kara wrote a touching letter to Brittany explaining why suicide is not the answer to a terminal illness. You can read Kara’s open letter here.
I’d welcome your thoughts on this issue.