Assisted suicide, euthanasia, and refusal of life-sustaining treatment may be related, but they are not the same thing. Defining these terms is a crucial first step towards ethical care in Minnesota.
Assisted Suicide is :
Suicide committed by someone with assistance from another person. That definition from Merriam-Webster covers the basics. However, in terms specific to the health of a patient, assisted suicide is defined by Patients Rights Action Fund as, the act in which a person is prescribed, by a physician, a lethal overdose that they will ingest at some time in the future to end his or her life.
Why call it “assisted suicide?” Suicide is defined as the intentional taking of one’s own life. When a physician prescribes a deadly dose of a drug to a patient with full knowledge that the patient’s intention is to end his or her life by overdosing on the drug, the physician is complicit in the patient’s suicide. While advocates of assisted suicide prefer terms like “medical aid in dying”, we believe “assisted suicide” is simply a more accurate description of the practice.
Assisted Suicide is not :
Refusal to Receive or Continue Life-Sustaining Treatment
A patient may always refuse life-sustaining treatment if their condition progresses to a point where they no longer wish to undergo treatment. A cancer patient, for example, can always refuse chemotherapy, even if he or she knows that the cancer will then end his or her life. In this case, the patient may instead receive palliative care to ease the dying process
This is very different from the practice of assisted suicide, in which a patient’s death is hastened with lethal drugs. Palliative care is a proven method of pain management, and Minnesota is known for its excellence in health care. No one needs to suffer a long, painful death in this state.
Euthanasia is when a third-party administers lethal drugs to a patient. Euthanasia is illegal in all 50 states. It differs from assisted suicide, in which the lethal drugs are meant to be self-administered.
Although euthanasia is illegal in the U.S., assisted suicide legislation allows for it in practice. Current laws only provide for the prescription and obtainment of lethal drugs. However, these laws do not protect patients when they are most vulnerable: at home, in possession of lethal drugs, with no medical professional to supervise. Legally there is no way to guarantee that the drugs are self-administered. The law leaves a gaping hole that allows family members or beneficiaries to administer the drugs against the patient’s will.
Distinct but not Separate
Assisted suicide and euthanasia are distinct practices, but ones that go together. Where we make room for one in our laws, the other is likely to follow. The fact that assisted suicide is not synonymous with euthanasia does not mean that it is a form of ethical care; both are death-dealing practices, not treatments.
In the fight for ethical care in Minnesota, clarifying just what it is we’re talking about when we say “assisted suicide” is half the battle. As the push for assisted suicide continues in the United States, we need to think clearly about this issue and continue to advocate for better health care, not cheap death, in Minnesota.