Ethicist-Assisted Suicide

DrRich | February 10th, 2011 - 11:36 am



This is the third in a series of articles on End-of-Life Care and Covert Rationing.  The first two articles can be found here and here.
In his previous post, DrRich attempted to satirize the lame attempts of certain payers to “inform” certain of their “covered lives” that, among all the wonderful options available to them under their truly comprehensive health plans, the medical service of physician-assisted suicide would be compassionately offered and cheerfully paid for. DrRich even offered, thoughtfully as usual, some free though invaluable advice to payers on how they ought to go about marketing assisted suicide as a cost-saving strategy, and to do so in a far more sensitive and less ham-fisted way than they have managed so far.

If the mark of good satire is that at least some readers will have difficulty discerning whether the satirist is serious or not, then DrRich is feeling genuinely Jonathan Swiftian today.  For some of his readers (one of whom e-mailed, “I can’t believe what I just read. This is sick.”) have taken his modest proposal for selling assisted suicide at face value.  This is not the first time DrRich has made unfortunate impressions upon readers through his (possibly inept) use of irony. Sadly, it almost certainly will not be the last.

But assisted suicide being such an important and ethically charged topic, DrRich feels obligated to clear things up once and for all. So what follows is DrRich’s honest assessment of the advisability of physician-assisted suicide, in which he will attempt to forgo entirely any satire or irony (though he admits to having great difficulty in controlling his sarcasm).

DrRich believes that physician-assisted suicide is a very, very bad idea.  He has two major reasons for this belief.  On a purely practical realm, embracing and systematizing physician-assisted suicide under any healthcare system that is actively engaged in rationing (whether overtly or covertly) will almost surely lead to some terrible abuses of the practice. In this regard you can either use your imagination, or read the history of Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

His second objection to physician-assisted suicide is based on a consideration of ethics. DrRich admits to being on shaky ground here because: a) he is not formally trained in ethics, and b) it appears for all the world that those who are formally trained in ethics have universally concluded that physician-assisted suicide is perfectly OK in every way.

Debating with modern medical ethicists, at least if you are merely a layperson, is mostly a losing proposition.  This is not because ethicists are intellectually (or even ethically) superior, but rather because they are adept in couching their arguments in arcane twists of logic and webs of jargon that make their arguments difficult if not impossible for the uninitiated to follow.  This technique, of course, places novices like DrRich in the position of having little choice but to accept the ethical bottom line without really understanding how the bottom line was reached. It reduces medical ethicists to a priesthood, and medical ethics to received knowledge.

But DrRich maintains that advancing unintelligible ethical arguments is, well, unethical.

So DrRich will now present his understanding of the chain of logic by which modern ethicists justify physician-assisted suicide – and its close cousin, euthanasia.  (If any of you actual ethicists out there object to this analysis, and can explain where DrRich is wrong in clear language, DrRich will be all ears. Absent the clear language, though, you can pound salt.)

Modern ethicists argue as follows:

Point 1: Our society has already decided that the autonomy of the individual patient is the overriding ethical consideration in making end-of-life decisions. We formalized this determination when we decided – by overwhelming consensus – that an individual has a right to refuse medical treatment even if that treatment is very likely to save their life. Therefore, individual autonomy is the universally agreed-upon controlling ethical precept.

And in adopting this controlling precept, we have already firmly decided that passive euthanasia – allowing nature to take its course by withholding treatment at the request of the patient – is ethical.

Point 2: There is no ethical distinction between passive euthanasia and active euthanasia. That is, whether we let death occur by withholding effective medical care, or by actually doing something to help death along a bit, we’re taking an action that hastens death either way. Ethically, both of these actions are equivalent. So, once we decide that individual autonomy is the overriding concern, we must also allow for active euthanasia when a patient wishes it.

Point 3: Once active euthanasia is deemed ethical, there can be no further ethical objection to the lesser act of physician-assisted suicide.  If it is ethical for a doctor him/herself to bring on the death of a patient who requests it, there can be no objection to doctors preparing the suicide machine and handing the patient the switch.

The striking thing here (to DrRich, at least) is that in establishing the ethical case for physician-assisted suicide, we necessarily also establish – as a veritable pre-condition – the ethical case for physician-provided euthanasia. Whether the patient says, “Help me to take my own life,” or “Take my life for me,” modern medical ethics supports the physician who replies, “Roll up your sleeve.”

For those who don’t see a problem with this, DrRich refers you to the Dutch system, where, in full accordance with modern medical ethics, the rules permit both physician-assisted suicide and active euthanasia for patients who request it. Reports on the results of the Dutch system (reports which both sides have used to bolster their respective opinions on either the glories or the travesties of such a system) do point out one striking finding – hundreds of times each year, acts of *involuntary* euthanasia are occurring. That is, patients are being killed under the Dutch healthcare system at the hands of their doctors, without their explicit permission. All these patients, it is claimed, are being euthanized for entirely humane reasons.

What do our friends the medical ethicists have to say about such involuntary euthanasia? Well, it turns out that it’s OK with many if not most of them. Ethicists don’t like to tell us that their chain of logic doesn’t end with Point 3.  But once we make the principle of individual autonomy the overriding consideration in determining end-of-life ethical issues, the same chain of logic takes us directly to Point 4.

Point 4: Since honoring the ethical precept of individual autonomy makes voluntary euthanasia available for patients with intractable suffering, it would be unethical to withhold the same benefit from suffering patients who are too incapacitated to give their permission. Their incapacity should not restrict them from a good that is available to others, for to do so would be discriminatory and inhumane. To cure this problem, the boon of active euthanasia can and must be performed, even without the patient’s explicit permission, in incapacitated patients whom “reasonable people” would agree are suffering too much. Therefore, involuntary active euthanasia is also ethical.

This conclusion, of course, leaves us in a place where others (i.e., “reasonable people,” like doctors or other agents of the Central Authority) can decide for an individual what constitutes intractable suffering, and further, can decide when such an individual is simply too incompetent to know that euthanasia is the best thing for them. Some of you, of course (hello, ethicists!) think this is just a fine idea. Most apologists for the Dutch system apparently do.

But DrRich maintains that under our system of covert healthcare rationing, where doctors are under extreme pressure to do the bidding of the third party payers (private insurers and the government) who determine their professional viability, and where the payers are under extreme pressure to reduce cost, and have already displayed in numerous ways their willingness to permit suffering and death among their subscribers in order to do so, then opening the door for physician-assisted suicide (let alone physician-administered euthanasia, whether the patient requests it or not), would inevitably lead to some nasty abuses, and would ultimately serve to undermine our civil society. DrRich is too politically correct to use the “other” N-word, but he will take this opportunity to remind his readers that such a thing has already happened, in what recently had been perhaps the world’s most cultured and educated society, within the memory of millions of living people.

DrRich believes that the principle of individual autonomy is vitally important, and indeed it is the foundation of American culture. However, no single ethical principle, no matter how important, can be allowed to overrule all other ethical principles in all other circumstances.  By nature, ethical precepts are often in conflict, creating what is called an ethical dilemma. And (DrRich humbly submits) it is supposed to be the job of ethicists to help us work through those ethical dilemmas, to find the right balance between competing principles, and not simply declare that no dilemma actually exists, because Ethical Precept A is the only one we need to pay attention to.

Individual autonomy is critically important to American culture – and the fact that we must fight to preserve individual autonomy in the face of covert healthcare rationing is indeed the underlying message of this blog – but in no other aspect of our culture do we let it absolutely rule. The autonomy of individuals needs to be checked, and we indeed limit it. This is the fundamental reason that governments are necessary in the first place.

The reason we have laws (supposedly) is to make sure that the behavior of individuals acting in their own interest, especially those who have accrued power (for instance, by accumulating great wealth, by acquiring large weapons, or by becoming heads of state), does not abrogate the natural rights of other individuals. Indeed, most of the political fights we have – between Democrats and Republicans or progressives and conservatives – are to determine where to place those limits, on individuals and on the collective, to best encourage a robust society that honors individual autonomy but that also encourages reasonably equal opportunities for individual fulfillment (i.e., “happiness.”) The main purpose of our public discourse, then, is to find the right balance between the rights and needs of individuals and the rights and needs of society as a whole.

So for ethicists to say, “Individual autonomy is all there is to it, and we have no choice but to follow that principle to wherever it may lead us,” is not only completely irresponsible and dangerous, it also flies in the face of our culture’s history and our everyday experience.  The cost to society not only should but must be taken into account as we consider institutionalizing physician-assisted suicide (let alone voluntary or involuntary euthanasia).  In DrRich’s opinion, ethicists who argue that we need not consider the cost to society in making end-of-life policy have declared themselves unworthy of the title and they ought to be completely ignored.

The cost to our society of institutionalizing and systematizing physician-assisted suicide, especially while we are still covertly rationing healthcare, would be severe and potentially lethal. Within the next decade or two, if things do not change, we likely will be facing cost pressures emanating from our healthcare system that will gravely threaten the survival of our culture. With an existential threat such as this, can we really refrain from slowly transforming the request for assisted suicide from an option to a duty? Can the Central Authority really stay its hand when it has the capability of directing its agents at the bedside to perform euthanasia on unfortunate (and unproductive) citizens who are too “incapacitated” to understand it’s the only thing to do?

DrRich, who opened this post with a promise to avoid irony, apologizes. For when all is said and done, it is deeply ironic that by steadfastly clinging to the ethical precept of individual autonomy at the end of life, within in a paradigm of covert healthcare rationing, we will very likely end up by completely devaluing the inherent worth of individuals.

At least until we solve the fiscal problems within our healthcare system, we simply should not embrace assisted suicide – no matter what we may think of the ethics of the act itself – and we should fight efforts to make it acceptable. The cost to our society would be far too high.

If people want to commit suicide and if medical ethicists insist that assisted suicide is OK, then let the ethicists do the assisting. DrRich has relatively little to say against ethicist-assisted suicide. But, at least as long as covert rationing is the chief operating principle of the American healthcare system, for the love of God keep the doctors out of it.

7 Responses to “Ethicist-Assisted Suicide”

  1. I agree with you that the slippery slope issue is worrisome, but I’m not sure that point #4 logically follows from #3, nor do I know of any supporters of physician-assisted suicide who have publicly made that leap (of course, this could be a result of my not looking hard enough).

    I don’t think that 3–>4 indicates a respect for autonomy; quite the opposite. I would argue (or at least hope) that respect for autonomy would involve keeping the patient alive at the life/death margin (there’s no autonomy in death), especially in a society where the default/expected position is keeping people alive.

    Is there a slippery slope… sure. But I’m not sure it’s the principle of autonomy that’s pushing us down that way.

    • DrRich says:


      I’m not saying that the chain of logic passes actual muster. I agree it does not. (It’s as if the ethicists are working backwards to find a way to justify what they want to be the end result.) I’m just saying that this is the logic (as I understand it) that ethicists are using to justify active euthanasia, voluntary or not.

      I also agree that the ethical precept of individual autonomy is not the “real” reason there are people advocating for euthanasia. It’s the reason that is given, however. What I’m attempting to do here is to demonstrate why I do not have as much respect for modern ethicists as I’m supposed to. In a later post, I may discuss an end-of-life issue that reveals what I think is the “real” reason behind the efforts of many in the end-of-life movement.


      • At the risk of engaging in unseemly self-promotion, I’d suggest you also consider the public-choice perspective. I have a post on bioethicists from that angle from about a month ago, if you’re interested.

      • DrRich says:


        I am aware of that post; in fact, it is one of the very few unsubmitted posts I “drafted” and wrote up for Grand Rounds tomorrow.


  2. Doc99 says:

    But at least it’s Cost Effective!

  3. Hal Dall, MD says:

    Here in Oregon, it has been interesting to see these contortions by the “ethicists” including the whitewashing of the Dutch experience. I have no doubt they will easily adapt to the ‘New Rules, er, Ethics’, giving cover to the medicrats and doctors who seek the brave new world.

  4. David Collihns says:

    Voluntary Active Euthanasia or Physician Assisted Suicide should be legal, if a patient is terminally ill and is fully competent in making decisions.

    Scenario: Family/Friend who is enduring unspeakable pain and wants your support to end his/her life ASAP.

    The next argument is based upon a scenario many people around the world experienced or will experience, and that is the possibility of a loved one such as a close family member being diagnosed with a life threatening disease. What would you do if your wife/husband, your mother/father parent, your brother/sister, or even a close friend requested to be given a lethal dose, due to unbearable pain and wanted your support? I believe when a person is faced with this situation, those who oppose voluntary active euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide will become empathetic to their terminally ill loved one and will consider a lethal dose to relieve their pain. If a person decided not to support their loved one’s request for the sake of their own personal comfort or gain; for example, wanting to spend more time with them before they die. Their actions are egotistical, totally ignoring their loved one’s self-determination and individual well-being. Ultimately, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide can benefit terminally ill patients who are fully competent of determining their fate. Furthermore, the last stages of life should not be the worst experiences, simply because a doctrine proposes it is immoral, when in fact the principles of past doctrines have been disproven.

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