Physician-assisted suicide, more commonly called physician-assisted death due to the negative connotation of suicide, involves a physician providing the means of knowledge for a terminally ill patient to end his or her own life.
The moral issue surrounding whether these patients have the right to a physician’s aid in ending their lives is debated heavily, from several perspectives. A utilitarian view on this issue would suggest that it is either morally right or wrong, relative to the pain the death causes to the surrounding people, or the relief of suffering for the patient. A deontological view, on the other hand, claims that the patient’s choice to end his or her life is morally wrong, but for a different reason, one related to the basic principle of morals.
I believe the issue of physician-assisted suicide is best answered by a utilitarian perspective, because in relation to personal freedom over life and death, the rigid view of deontology which presents the value of human life as an ends to itself does not justify the situation of a person with the option of choosing between an unsatisfiable life and physician-assisted suicide. Physician-assisted suicide, also called physician-assisted death, was first legalized in the United States in the Death with Dignity Act, which was passed in Oregon in the year 1997. The Act “allows terminally-ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose.” This Act differs from euthanasia in that the medicine prescribed for physician-assisted suicide is administered by only the patients themselves, while euthanasia is an active ending of a terminally-ill life, not necessarily by the patients themselves. There are several reasons why the morality of physician-assisted suicide is disputed and why it is such a controversial topic.
A common argument for physician-assisted suicide is that terminally ill patients are now entitled to this practice, more so than in the past. This is due to the ever-growing technology which is lengthening patients’ lives, and putting them in a position of physical and mental suffering for longer than ever before. Some people argue that physician-assisted suicide gives patients a chance to shorten their suffering, giving autonomy over their inevitable death, as well as living a dignified life in their eyes. It is argued that the right to live and die is a freedom that every person should have. The strongest justification in favor of the practice can be summed up as an appeal to protect a person’s autonomy and personal freedom. A common argument against physician-assisted suicide stems from the practice’s contradictory nature to the value of life.
The fact that we have laws against homicide, manslaughter, etc. is because people give a certain value towards the protection of human life, and legalizing physician-assisted suicide conflicts with that value. Furthermore, the Hippocratic Oath, sworn upon by all physicians, which states, “I will not