Emotional Distress, Not Physical Pain, Driving Factor in Assisted Suicide

Posted On: Monday, June 12th, 2017

If anything, proponents of assisted suicide are consistent. They typically make their case for legalizing this risky, dangerous practice by trotting out a familiar scene: a dying individual needlessly suffering from immense physical pain as family members helplessly stand by. Legalization of assisted suicide could spare thousands of others from a similar “undignified” fate. Or so we are led to believe.

The argument pulls at our heartstrings, but it’s largely based on a fiction. Pain and physical suffering at the end of life are real and we should use every ethical means at our disposal to address and alleviate them.  However, relief from physical pain is not often a contributing factor in people’s decision to pursue assisted suicide.

recently-published study in The New England Journal of Medicine illustrates this point:

The study used data from Canada’s University Health Network. Between March 2016 and March 2017, 74 people sought information about physician-assisted suicide…Most people seeking a medically supported suicide cited psychological distress as a reason for their desire to die. Few participants said poorly controlled physical pain was their primary motivation.

Overall, 95% said a loss of autonomy figured prominently in their decision. Patients often said their quality of life was poor, and many viewed physician-assisted suicide as a way to regain control over the circumstances of their death.

The study’s conclusions line-up with those of other research: loss of autonomy and emotional distress–not physical pain–are the most frequently-cited reasons behind this unfortunate decision.

In other words, the push to legalize assisted suicide is co-opting medical care and treatment to address factors that are not strictly medical. The perception of one’s value diminishing with loss of autonomy is not a medical condition. It is a mental state that calls for psychological counseling and support, not a vial of lethal pills.

Of course, the sad irony is that proponents of assisted suicide aren’t merely abusing the practice of medicine to secure a false right for a select few. By pushing for assisted suicide as a viable “treatment option” they’re threatening to reshape the healthcare coverage landscape, putting the lives of the poor, the disabled and the elderly at risk.

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