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Moral hazards of physician-assisted suicide

March 20, 2015
Mike DeNunzio
San Francisco

 “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life ...” (Deuteronomy 30).

Senate Bill 128, sponsored by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, is dubbed “Death with Dignity” in memory of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old cancer patient from California who moved to Oregon, which permits physician-assisted suicide for terminal illness. Physician-assisted suicide is opposed by the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization and many others.

Aaron Kheriaty, M.D., director of medical ethics at UC Irvine School of Medicine, and Paul McHugh, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, pose a profound question about physician-assisted suicide in the Orange County Register of Feb, 12. They ask if assisted suicide becomes a “right” for sufferers of a terminal illness should it also be a right for a non-terminal condition, i.e., an aged person with a costly lengthy illness; a depressed young adult facing a lifelong incurable condition, mental or physical.

In the United States and the European Union, advocates of physician-assisted suicide shun research that discloses hospice and palliative care offer medically sound alternatives. Kheriaty and McHugh report although a vast majority of suicides are associated with clinical depression or other treatable disorders, in Oregon only 43 of 752 individuals who chose assisted suicide were referred for psychiatric evaluation. There also is a social contagion to suicide when portrayed “courageous” as with Brittany Maynard. Both doctors worry that her death will “inspire” others who do have a terminal illness. Social acceptance of physician-assisted suicide will put many at risk. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults in the U.S.

Also, nothing in SB 128 protects patients from family pressures, financial or emotional, No safeguard can protect against coercion in this era of managed care.

Editor’s note: California’s Catholic bishops are urging citizens to contact lawmakers to oppose SB 128. See story on Page 7.

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