I recently read with interest Dr Thomas Strouse’s article written to support physician aid in dying. Within the article he made the following statement: “I have come to view ‘active non-participation’ in legal PAD [physician aid in dying] – that is, decisions by individual physicians and/or health systems not only to not provide, but also not refer patients to possibly willing providers and systems without regard for specific clinical contexts – as a toxic form of patient abandonment.”1 Within the article, Dr Strouse lays out for us thoughtful precautions in the aid-in-dying laws, attempting to demonstrate that no vulnerable population is abused. Such precautions are important but provide the same result for all participants: the death of a patient. This is the central problem with aid in dying. Certainly there is nothing wrong with dying, and we all will have that opportunity. Though most of us would choose to put that moment off a while, for some, the suffering in this life makes death seem a welcome relief.
What is a physician’s central responsibility in the care of his or her patients near the end of their lives?
As program director for the hematology and oncology fellowship at my institution, I impress upon my fellows the importance of goal-oriented decision-making. I specifically teach them that there are only four goals worth achieving in any therapeutic or diagnostic decision making: to cure the disease; to help patients live longer despite the disease; to maximize the patient’s quality of life, and to prevent impending disasters. I know of no other worthwhile goal in any decision we are to make for our patients. I can point to none of these goals that physician aid in dying achieves. When it comes to physician-assisted suicide, some would argue that selecting an early death is a way of “maximizing quality of life.” And certainly our task is to make life the best it can be for our patients while they live through the dying process, but I am unaware of any published quality of life formula that calculates the end of life as a positive measure.
The question for us is the role of the doctor. Dr Strouse raises two issues with those whom he accuses of toxic abandonment. The first is whether physicians should provide aid in death, and the second is whether physicians should refer for the same service if they believe it is wrong for their patients.
It certainly has not been well established that physician-assisted suicide is a good thing rather than a tragic thing. A 2012 statement from the Ethics, Professionalism and Human Rights Committee of the American College of Physicians suggests otherwise: “After much consideration, the College concluded that making physician-assisted suicide legal raised serious ethical, clinical and social concerns and that the practice might undermine patient trust; distract from reform in end-of-life care; and be used in vulnerable patients, including those who are poor, are disabled, or are unable to speak for themselves or minority groups who have experienced discrimination.”2 The disability rights group, Not Dead Yet, has agreed with the ACP: “It cannot be seriously maintained that assisted suicide laws can or do limit assisted suicide to people who are imminently dying, and voluntarily request and consume a lethal dose, free of inappropriate pressures from family or society. Rather, assisted suicide laws ensure legal immunity for physicians who already devalue the lives of older and disabled people and have significant economic incentives to at least agree with their suicides, if not encourage them, or worse.”3
Such statements sound prophetic within both our present cost containment health care culture and in the real world of personal family economic pressures that can lead a patient toward the understanding that a right to die is actually a “duty to die.”
As society is driving physicians to be technicians to carry out their bidding, physicians should be clinging tightly to their role as trusted advocates for their patients. Certainly our patients have fears and pain that would at times lead them to prefer death to living, but a patient’s move to nonexistence is not the task of the physician. Our task as physicians was well described recently by Yang and Curlin: “Many patients with terminal illnesses fear unbearable pain or other symptoms. The physician’s role is to care for them in their illness so as to relieve pain or otherwise help them bear up under the symptoms they endure. Many patients loathe the prospect of abject debility. The physician’s role is to maintain solidarity with those whose health is diminished, not to not to imply that debility renders a patient’s life not worth living.”4
Statements such as these by reasoned people suggest we, as a country, have no consensus for the question whether aid in dying is possibly good or seriously bad for our patients. So it is quite reasonable for compassionate physicians to refuse to administer lethal medicines to their patients in order to “do no harm.”
The second question Dr Strouse explores is whether physicians who disapprove of physician-assisted suicide are abandoning their patients because they do not refer them to a provider who will provide such services. Dr Edmund Pelligrino, a well-respected medical ethicist, in his discussion of moral absolutes in medicine establishes the moral absolute, “Do not kill” and then addresses the ethical problem of complicity in killing. “Formal cooperation is absolutely and always, forbidden. This is the case when the physician shares the evil intent, partakes directly and freely, or in any way facilitates an intrinsically evil act like abortion or assisted suicide.”5 Though personally I would not use the word, “evil,” as he does, since evil implies motive; I would substitute the word “harm” and suggest that we should never be complicit in an act that we feel brings the harm of death to our patients. I would suggest that the expectation that physicians referring for aid in dying is analogous with the patient who comes to me demanding a chemotherapy that I know would cause her harm. I would refuse to give it to her and refuse to send her to a doctor who would be willing to give to her. Referral to produce harm is complicity with causing the harm itself. Our society should never go there. Our society should never ask a physician to cross the boundary line of conscience that is the ultimate protection for vulnerable patients.
I know what it is like to watch our patients suffer. I know what it is like to watch our loved ones suffer. I pushed the morphine at my father’s bedside until he quit screaming in pain. But I did not kill him. I cared for him. Such is the physician’s role. If society decides to allow patients the autonomy to end their lives early and wishes to provide skilled technical help in doing so, let it do so at their peril. But let it choose and train technicians to do it. Do not compromise the one person whom our patients should trust totally to never do them harm.
Alva B Weir, III, MD, FACP (alweir@WESTCLINIC.com)
West Cancer Center, Memphis, Tennessee