The legalization of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia poses many moral and ethical concerns, particularly the implied message that some lives are not worth living. Every human, in every condition from the single cell stage of development to natural death, is made in God's image and possesses inestimable worth. As such, the common foundation of human value and dignity is our human nature, not our size, level of development, environment or functional capacity. Therefore, intentionally ending the life of one dying patient opens the door to the possible destruction of any human life.
The current policy debate in the United States involves physician-assisted suicide - not euthanasia. However, the best data on the subject comes from a country where the two practices go hand-in-hand. In the Netherlands, physicians engage in both euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, generally without fear of prosecution. Nonetheless, two Dutch studies document that the practice of euthanasia is 10 times more common than physician-assisted suicide. What is even more disturbing in the Dutch studies is that among all euthanasia deaths in 1990 and 1995, approximately one quarter involved patients who did not give their explicit consent to be killed.
Could the abuses witnessed in Holland be repeated in the U.S.? Escalating health care costs coupled with a growing elderly and disabled population set the stage for an American culture eager to embrace alternatives to expensive, long-term medical care. The so-called "right to die" may soon become the "duty to die" as our senior, disabled or depressed family members are pressured or coerced into ending their lives. Current efforts to manage health care costs also raise concerns about increased physician-assisted suicide as more health care systems look for ways to reduce the amount of health care dollars spent per patient.
Another concern among opponents of physician-assisted suicide is that legalizing the practice will make patients vulnerable to coercion by family members who are motivated by fear or greed. Physician-assisted suicide also threatens the doctor-patient relationship by endangering the trust patients have in their physician.
The terminally and chronically ill do not need physician-assisted suicide. They need a physician to treat their depression, pain and other symptoms. Treatable depression is a critical factor among terminally ill individuals who wish to commit suicide. Studies have determined that more than 95 percent of individuals who have committed suicide suffered from depression or another psychiatric illness when they killed themselves.
Terminally ill patients do not need to suffer a painful death. Physicians who specialize in treating patients in pain report that today's pain- and symptom-management techniques can provide substantial relief for up to 95 percent of the patients treated. In addition, these same techniques can lessen the effects of pain and other symptoms for all patients. Today's pain-management techniques are so effective that, when applied correctly, experts say patients change their minds about seeking assisted suicide.