Doctor Assisted Suicide: Why DC’s Docs Are Not Opting In

Posted On: Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

sad female doctor who doesn't want to participate in assisted suicide in DC

Doctors Don’t Want to Help Their Patients Die

When assisted suicide legislation passed in Washington, D.C., Compassion & Choices predicted that around 10 people in the city would use it each year. Yet, during the law’s first year, not a single person has. Not one.

Rather than acknowledging that doctors and residents still have serious reservations about assisted suicide, Compassion & Choices responded by pointing fingers, saying that too much red tape is creating barriers to doctor participation. It seems, however, that physicians simply do not wish to opt in because they have no interest in assisting their patients’ suicides.

The blame game

Compassion & Choices insists that it’s not for lack of interested patients—they say 11 people called their hotline this year asking how to get access. The low turnout for assisted suicide, C&C argues, is because the D.C. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) made it too difficult for doctors to opt in.

HHS added a number of safeguards to the law before passing it, including an official registration for doctors to participate in assisted suicide and mandatory online training modules. Compassion & Choices complains, however, that these measures inhibit doctor participation. These protections, they say, make it too difficult for doctors to opt in, so patients who want lethal prescriptions can’t find anyone to write them.

According to C&C, HHS also failed to inform physicians that the option is now available to them. Too much bureaucracy and lack of communication have obstructed the new law. This explains why only two physicians out of 11,000 in the D.C. area registered this year as providers of assisted suicide drugs.

HHS denies that they wanted to sabotage the assisted suicide law. The safeguards HHS spokesmen are also clear that doctors were given clear instructions about how to participate.

C&C wants to blame low participation rates on red tape, but the existing legal protections are minimal—certainly not enough to prevent doctors who want to opt in. If doctors are not participating in assisted suicide, then, it is not because it is too difficult. More likely, they simply do not wish to offer assisted suicide to their patients.

Physicians don’t want to opt in

blue and silver stethoscopeResearch shows that many doctors who have assisted patients’ suicides regretted it after the fact. About 16 percent of doctors felt that participation in assisted suicide negatively affected their medical practice. In some cases, assisted suicide has taken a large emotional toll on doctors, even to the point of burnout.

In Massachusetts, doctors have been outspoken about their opposition to assisted suicide, saying it violates a “sacred trust” between doctors and their patients. When physicians take the Hippocratic oath, they promise to do no harm to the patient, and never to give or recommend a deadly drug. Although the assisted suicide lobby is cloaked in polite language (“medical aid-in-dying,” “compassion,” “death with dignity”), doctors are typically alive to the fact that sending someone home with a bottle of pills to kill themselves violates that oath and undermines the doctor-patient relationship.

Compassion & Choices refuses to face the music that assisted suicide is about more than patient choice. Massachusetts’ recently defeated bill demonstrates the concern doctors have that their own choice may be violated by assisted suicide laws, which can require non-participating doctors to refer patients to more willing physicians. C&C is also stubbornly unwise to the reality that the vast majority of doctors do not want to be involved with assisted suicide, plain and simple.

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