The New York Times has been on an assisted suicide and euthanasia kick lately. The most recent piece on the matter, “Should I Help My Patients Die?,” is a column by pro-PAS physician Jessica Nutik Zitter, which discusses the practice of assisted suicide as well as the necessity for it to be done safely.
As Zitter tackles the subject, she brings up a former patient of hers who had asked her to help him die because he missed and resented his sister.
His despair had given way to rage. “Let’s just end this,” he said. “I’m fed up with my lousy life.” He really didn’t care, he added, that his sister opposed his decision. His request appeared to stem from a deep family wound, not his terminal illness…
At our second meeting, with more trust established, he issued a sob, almost a keening. He felt terrified and powerless, he said. He didn’t want to live this way anymore. I understood. I could imagine my own distress in his condition — being shuttled like a bag of bones between the nursing home and the hospital. It was his legal right to request this intervention from me. But given how uncomfortable I was feeling, was it my right to say no?
After hearing the man’s request, Zitter put her patient on anti-depressants for four weeks. By the end he had changed his mind about wanting assisted suicide, and died a natural death three months later.
Zitter didn’t kill her patient when he first requested it, and with the advantage of hindsight, she states this was the right move: his depression was treated and the negative emotions driving his decision for suicide became more manageable.
However, if not for her own personal hang-ups, Zitter very well could’ve prescribed lethal pills right away when the patient had requested them. There were no legal protections for the man, nothing in law to protect himself from making a life-ending decision in the midst of a mental crisis.
In truth, assisted suicide cannot be “safe,” because there is no safe way to predict whether a patient will have a change of heart in the future. The problem would be even more glaring to us if the man had lived even longer after his visit with Zitter. Or if he’d experienced a beautiful reconciliation with his sister with those additional months. Those opportunities would’ve been extinguished because of a dangerous, risky law that purports to end suffering, but instead allows for abuse and neglect.
Legalization of assisted suicide makes it easy for a physician to lean on deadly prescriptions when a patient is suffering, rather than attempting all possible care to improve their quality of life. Why go through the cost and trouble of providing extra treatment, when one could abide by a vulnerable patient’s death wish and end their suffering with a prescription?
Once again it is clear that physician assisted suicide preys on the vulnerable, taking advantage of the loneliness and depression the ill and elderly so often experience, while failing to offer real solutions.