Down a dangerous path

Sometimes individual rights are trumped by the common good. In the matter of physician-assisted suicide, this in one of those times.

Based on unhappy experiences of dying loved ones, your columnist Margaret Evans is pleased with the recent Carter case ruling in favour of assisted suicide. (Rekindling the debate over doctor-assisted suicide, Chilliwack Progress, June 19.) I would like to offer a contrary view based on my experience as a family physician.

One person’s right can become another person’s obligation. When patients have the right to choose euthanasia, this sends an implicit message that some lives aren’t worth living. Frail elderly, handicapped, and cancer patients can easily perceive that society doesn’t want them around, when they can instead choose to die “with dignity.” It is a short step from believing that they can choose dying to believing that they should choose dying.

We have come a long way in palliative care. I believe this is the greatest medical advance that I’ve observed during my career in medicine. Sure, there’s always room for improvement, but I’ve never heard a negative word about the care given to dying patients in our hospice. Dying in hospice, surrounded by loved ones, with good symptom control, can actually be a beautiful thing to witness. The disease causes death, not some medic with a lethal syringe.

The Canadian Medical Association has consistently voted against physician-assisted suicide. Why is this? Are physicians cruel sadists who want our patients to suffer? No. We believe that palliative care is a better option. We never want patients to wonder whether their doctor will be trying to heal or trying to kill. We take an oath about this proscription against killing, and have done so ever since Hippocrates.

Sometimes individual rights are trumped by the common good. In the matter of physician-assisted suicide, this in one of those times.

Howard Bright, MD

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