The issue of physician-assisted suicide has come to be one of the most controversial legal issues in recent history. In my opinion I think that the law is designed to lay out guidelines for the social conduct of individuals in society. Yet, within this definition there are extremes on both ends of the spectrum in which the law encompasses. The question of whether or not physicians can legally prescribe and administer lethal doses of medication to mentally competent patients who suffer from the issue of physician-assisted suicide has become a heated topic. Whether or not physicians can legally prescribe and administer lethal doses of medication to mentally competent patients who suffer from untreatable pain is not an easily conclusive issue. Rather, the question of the ethics is the pressing legal matter. Some may argue that life should be ended in its due time and not tampered with, yet I cannot agree with this. I strongly feel that mentally competent adults who are in a constant state of suffering and who know, and have been told that death is inevitable have the right to commit suicide with the aide of a physician. If the person so wishes to end their life it should not lay blame on the physician who assisted in the matter.
Individuals, who are against physician-assisted suicide, while I may not personally agree, have valid arguments against this practice. According to an article in the Connecticut Post even the term of physician assisted suicide is inconsistent. If someone assists you with your death, you have not committed suicide. You have been killed. (Conn. Post. 4-27-98) When physicians take the Hippocratic oath they agree to the terms Hippocrates stated. He wrote, I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel. (Conn. Post) On this same line that physicians are fundamentally opposed to aiding in the death of individuals there is also an argument that the right to die is not a fundamental right.A person cannot exercise a right to kill himself without first waiving his right to lifethere is no right to give up ones right to life or be free from freedom.(Mark Rothe p. 9, Amicus Brief)This states that an individual cannot give up his or her inalienable right to life, and just as a person cannot make themselves slaves, Rothe argues that a person cannot legally have any rights. Thus if a person is dead they have no rights. People who assist in suicides can even be seen as felons who commit homicide if they are put under Whartons Criminal Law.To kill one already dying, to accelerate ones death, to kill one condemned to be executed the next day, or to kill a worthless victim. (p.6) If this is to be held as law, then physicians who unduly break this law and should be legally held responsible for killing a person even if he or she is already dying.
While there are may reasons why physicians should have to take legal responsibility in assisting in the death of a patient, I do not believe that it is fair for society and the law to prohibit an individual of the liberty to do what they want with their life. While this disagrees with the previous statement about inalienable rights, it is unfair to for a person to have to endure horrid pain when they know that there will never be an end to it. If the person so chooses, in a competent state of mind, to terminate their life with the aide of a physician how can society say that this is wrong. Some opponents to this may make far-fetched remark, for example, people do not have the right to do illegal drugs such as heroine because it makes them a nuisance to society. Yet, the ultimate factor in why physicians should be legally allowed to aide in medical suicides is because the individual is not committing an act that would make them a nuisance to society. They are merely putting themselves out of their pain in a respectable and proper manner. Physicians should not be held responsible for this type of medical treatment if it is done so in a regulatory and proper manner.
Some people may feel that in the future physicians may just hide behind the protection of the law if statutes protecting physician-assisted suicides are created. Yet, this is not so. The Washington based non- profit organization Compassion In Dying goes through comprehensive analysis of the patient before any further steps are taken in the process to let the patient die with the aide of a physician. If conducted in this manner physicians are only helping to provide the means to which a person can commit suicide through medication. In Judge Rothsteins ruling of Compassion In Dying v. The State of Washington he stated, preventing suicide simply means prolonging a dying persons suffering, an aim in which the State can have no interest. (Rothstein p. 10) In this statement Judge Rothstein concludes that the State has no place in interfering with the wishes of the terminally ill who are dying and living under such dire circumstances and therefore as long as it is regulated physicians are not subject to conviction if they assist in a suicide.
In Oregons Death With Dignity Act mentally competent, terminally ill adults can legally end their lives though physician assisted suicide without the interference of the state. Oregons law, which respects the wishes of dying people, is in my opinion to be commended for taking such a strong stand for the rights of adults. More importantly the Oregon Act protects the rights of physicians while still using rigid guidelines for the procedure. If taken care of in this manner more states should have laws protecting physicians and not incriminating them in fear of suicide becoming an easy way out. In fact, by no means should physician assisted suicide be seen as a quick way to terminate life. If seen in this manner it makes a mockery out of the dying patient. Physician assisted suicide laws are in fact needed to allow physicians the protection to help suffering, terminally ill people end their lives with dignity.
In the case of the State of Missouri v. Dr. Cynthia Walters, Dr. Walters was charged with aiding in a suicide. Dr. Walters patient Jim Burton was a widowed man who lived alone. Mr. Burton was terminally ill and had been living with an advanced case of amyotropic lateral sclerosis for 8 years. He had two children; one who had passed away due to prostate cancer and another daughter Penny. Other than Penny he had no family, and since his illness had almost no contact with outsiders. His pension provided him with just enough money to be able to afford two shifts of nurses who looked after him night and day. Jim Burton had mentioned a few times early on in his disease that he wanted to die with dignity with the aide of a physician if he continued to deteriorate. But then he would go back on his statement and say that he could never actually do it because of his faith in God. Yet about in his 6th year of living with the disease he repeatedly made statements to his two nurses that he wanted to end his life and that the pain was too unbearable.
His one living child Penny Burton who is now age 34 is the one who called the police to notify them that her father had not died from natural causes, but was assisted in his suicide by Dr. Walters. At first when she called the police the evening that her father had died the police thought it was a joke. Sergeant Mohammad later stated that Penny Burton was a regular at the St. Louis Police Station and for about 4 years was frequently arrested for prostitution and possession of narcotics. In fact the Sergeant had Penny picked up two days later after the phone call concerning the death of her father for soliciting herself. Penny, who is a known prostitute and a heavy user of heroine along with other narcotics had not been sober for 5 years. Although early on in her fathers illness she had heard him say that he was a God fearing man, and didnt want to end his own life she had stopped her visits with him in his 4th year of his illness. She had not visited with him as a sober adult in his last 4 years of his life and consequently never saw the extreme pain that he had to endure.
Currently Penny Burton, along with the state of Missouri, has pressed charges against Dr. Cynthia Walters for killing her father by aiding in her suicide. The state is prosecuting Dr. Burton under Missouri Penal Code 420 that states, Any individual who aides in, contributes, or encourages the act of suicide is guilty of homicide in either the 1st or 2nd degree. Yet, Dr. Walters lawyer, Robert Fong, argues that Dr. Walters must be acquitted on the grounds that the statute violates the rights of Mr. Jim Burton to make his own decisions as a competent adult. It also denies a person to their 1st amendment rights in the Constitution, and thus should be deemed unconstitutional. Fong also states that the 1886 statute is outdated and individuals have more freedoms today then they did over a hundred years ago. Also terminal diseases, such as the one that Mr. Burton suffered from, have been researched to such an extent that it is still conclusive that even with all of the medical advances we have today that it is an incurable and de-habilitating disease. Due to these facts Fong urges the court to acquit Dr. Walters and help preserve the Constitutional rights of individuals. The district attorney argues that Dr. Walters should be prosecuted for aiding in the suicide of Jim Burton due to the fact that she violated Penal Code 420, and the fact that Missouri is merely protecting the preciousness of life.
While Penny Burton is convinced that her father would not have wanted to end his own life due to what she had heard him say in the early stages of his illness she is by no means incorrect. Yet, she did not see him as he progressed into the latter stages of his illness. Also the fact that she is a prostitute and a drug user does not help her case. Although individuals, no matter what their condition, should be shown respect I do not feel that Penny Burton is not a competent adult is capable of making accusations against Dr. Walters. For it was Dr. Walters who was with Jim Burton in his last 5 years of life. I would agree with Dr. Walters attorney Robert Fong, that it is unconstitutional to prosecute the physician for aiding in what the constitution already had guaranteed Jim Burton with the right to the 1st amendment. Finally I feel that Dr. Walters should be acquitted based on the fact that the Missouri statue is outdated, vague, and needs revision.
There are many different perspectives that this controversial issue can be seen from. The passion that the individuals of both sides of this issue have is all purely based on what each side believes to be the best situation for the ill patient. Yet, out of this comes the difficulty of deciding who is right and who is wrong. It is excruciatingly difficult to decide whether it is better to respect and preserve a human life, or if it is better to respect the wishes of the individual and end human suffering. No matter what the arguments are for each side I strongly and passionately feel that the pain that terminally ill adults feel should be ended if all other possibilities have been negated and physician assisted suicide is the ultimate last wish of the individual.