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Assisted suicide is a general term for a suicide committed by someone with assistance from another person or persons, typically in regard to people suffering from a severe physical illness. It is often confused with euthanasia (sometimes called "mercy killing"). Euthanasia refers to the killing of another in order to relieve dire suffering, whereas assisted suicide is a practice in which a physician provides a competent, terminally ill patient with a prescription for a lethal dose of medication, upon the patient's request, which the patient intends to use to end his or her own life.
Discussion of assisted suicide centers on legal, religious, and moral conceptions of suicide and a personal "right to die". Legally speaking, the practice may be legal, illegal, or undecided, depending on the culture or jurisdiction.
The most important reasons for requesting assistance with suicide, among patients who received prescriptions for lethal medications, were a desire to control the circumstances of death, a desire to die at home, the belief that continuing to live was pointless, and being ready to die. Depression and other psychiatric disorders, lack of social support, and concern about being a financial drain were, according to nurses, relatively unimportant.
Euthanasia is legal in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide where the patient has to take the final action themselves (unlike euthanasia) is legal in Switzerland. There are assisted dying laws, for terminally ill mentally competent adults only, in the US states of Oregon, Washington and Vermont.
In 2006, Belgium legalized partial euthanasia with certain regulations.[clarification needed]
Suicide is not a crime in Canada, but physician-assisted suicide is considered illegal.
The Criminal Code of Canada states in section 241(b) that
Every one who ….(b) aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not, is guilty of an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years"
The reason behind its illegality owes to preventing people from 'assisting in suicide' those that are not mentally capable of making the decision and because of the "value that society places on human life" which "in the eyes of the law makers, might easily be eroded if assistance in committing suicide were to be decriminalized."
In 1993, the Supreme Court of Canada heard a case (Rodriguez v. British Columbia (Attorney General)) in which Sue Rodriguez, a terminally ill woman, challenged the prohibition of assisted suicide as contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In a 5 to 4 decision, the Court upheld the provision in the Criminal Code of Canada.
On June 15, 2012, the British Columbia Supreme Court struck down the prohibition against physician-assisted suicide, calling the current law discriminatory, disproportionate and overbroad. Justice Lynn Smith suspended her ruling for a period of one year in order to give Parliament time to draft legislation with her ruling in mind. Within a month, the federal government announced it would appeal that ruling. On October 25, 2012, the federal government filed its 54-page legal argument, arguing inter alia that the purpose of the current legislation is "to protect the vulnerable, who might be induced in moments of weakness to commit suicide", that "it is a reflection of the state’s policy that the inherent value of all human life should not be depreciated by allowing one person to take another’s life", and that the B.C. Supreme Court had no right to attempt to overrule the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling in the 1993 Rodriguez case. On December 10, 2012, the British Columbia Court of Appeal announced that it had scheduled a hearing for the appeal in March, 2013. Suicide was considered a criminal offence in Canada until 1972, after which it was removed from the Criminal Code.
An article in People's Daily reported that "Nine people from Xi'an City in China made news when they 'jointly wrote to local media asking for euthanasia, or mercy killings'". These people had uremia, a disease due to the failure of the kidneys, and expressed their "unbearable suffering and [an unwillingness] to burden their families any more". The article stated because it is illegal for doctors to help their patients die, all that could be done for them was to ask the doctors to ease their pain.
Despite its strict Roman Catholic history, in May 1997 Colombian courts allowed for the euthanasia of sick patients who requested to end their lives. This ruling came about owing to the efforts of a group that strongly opposed euthanasia. When one of its members brought a lawsuit to the Colombian Supreme Court against it, the court issued a 6 to 3 decision that "spelled out the rights of a terminally ill person to engage in voluntary euthanasia."
Though physician-assisted suicide is legal, the country has no way to document or set rules and regulations for doctors and patients that want to end their lives. Though it is opposed on religious grounds by many Colombians, many patients have still been able to find doctors to assist them in ending their lives.
Assisted suicide is illegal and punishable as manslaughter by up to 3 years.
The controversy over legalising euthanasia and physician assisted suicide is not as big as in the United States because of the country's "well developed hospice care programme". However, in 2000 the controversy over the uncontroversial topic was ignited with Vincent Humbert. After a car crash that left him "unable to 'walk, see, speak, smell or taste'", he used the movement of his right thumb to write a book, I Ask the Right to Die (Je vous demande le droit de mourir) in which he voiced his desire to "die legally". After his appeal was denied, his mother assisted in killing him by injecting him with an overdose of barbiturates that put him into a coma, killing him 2 days later. Though his mother was arrested for aiding in her son's death and later acquitted, the case did jumpstart a new legislation which states that when medicine serves "no other purpose than the artificial support of life" it can be "suspended or not undertaken".
In 2013 President Francois Hollande said that France should hold a national debate on the issue and stated his intention to introduce a bill to parliament before the end of the year. Opinion polls in France show that the majority of the public are in favour of an assisted suicide law, however France's national ethics committee has advised against any change in the law.
Assisting with suicide by, for example, providing poison or a weapon, is generally legal. Since suicide itself is legal, assistance or encouragement is not punishable by the usual legal mechanisms dealing with complicity and incitement (German criminal law follows the idea of "accessories of complicity" which states that "the motives of a person who incites another person to commit suicide, or who assists in its commission, are irrelevant"). Nor is assisting with suicide explicitly outlawed by the criminal code. There can however be legal repercussions under certain conditions for a number of reasons. Aside from laws regulating firearms, the trade and handling of controlled substances and the like (e.g. when acquiring poison for the suicidal person), this concerns three points:
If the suicidal person is not acting out of his own free will, then assistance is punishable by any of a number of homicide offences that the criminal code provides for, as having "acted through another person" (§25, section 1 of the German criminal code, usually called "mittelbare Täterschaft"). Action out of free will is not ruled out by the decision to end one's life in itself; it can be assumed as long as a suicidal person "decides on his own fate up to the end […] and is in control of the situation."
Free will cannot be assumed, however, if someone is manipulated or deceived. A classic textbook example for this, in German law, is the so-called Sirius case on which the Federal Court of Justice ruled in 1983: The accused had convinced an acquaintance that she would be re-incarnated into a better life if she killed herself. She unsuccessfully attempted suicide, leading the accused to be charged with, and eventually convicted of attempted murder. (The accused had also convinced the acquaintance that he hailed from the star Sirius, hence the name of the case).
Apart from manipulation, the criminal code states three conditions under which a person is not acting under his own free will:
Under these circumstances, even if colloquially speaking one might say a person is acting of his own free will, a conviction of murder is possible.
German criminal law obligates everybody to come to the rescue of others in an emergency, within certain limits (§323c of the German criminal code, "Omission to effect an easy rescue"). This is also known as a duty to rescue in English. Under this rule, the party assisting in the suicide can be convicted if, in finding the suicidal person in a state of unconsciousness, he does not do everything in his power to revive him. In other words, if someone assists a person in committing suicide, leaves, but comes back and finds the person unconscious, he must try to revive him.
This reasoning is disputed by legal scholars, citing that a life-threatening condition that is part, so to speak, of a suicide underway, is not an emergency. For those who would rely on that defence, the Federal Court of Justice has considered it an emergency in the past.
German law puts certain people in the position of a warrantor (Garantenstellung) for the well-being of another, e.g. parents, spouses, doctors and police officers. Such people might find themselves legally bound to do what they can to prevent a suicide; if they do not, they are guilty of homicide by omission.
Assisted suicide is illegal. “At the current time, there are no initiatives in Iceland that seek the legalization of euthanasia or assisted suicide. The discussion on euthanasia has never received any interest in Iceland, and both lay people and health care professionals seem to have little interest in the topic. A few articles have appeared in newspapers but gained little attention.”
After failing to get royal assent for legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide, in December 2008 Luxembourg's parliament amended the country's constitution to take this power away from the monarch, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg. Euthanasia and assisted suicide were legalized in the country in April, 2009.
Physician-assisted suicide is legal under the same conditions as euthanasia.
Assisted suicide is illegal in New Zealand. Under Section 179 of the Crimes Act 1961, it is illegal to 'aid and abet suicide.'
South Africa is struggling with the debate over legalizing euthanasia. Owing to the under-developed health care system that pervades the majority of the country, Willem Landman, "a member of the South African Law Commission, at a symposium on euthanasia at the World Congress of Family Doctors" stated that many South African doctors would be willing to perform acts of euthanasia when it became legalized in the country. He feels that because of the lack of doctors in the country, "[legalizing] euthanasia in South Africa would be premature and difficult to put into practice […]".
Though it is illegal to assist a patient in dying in some circumstances, there are others where there is no offence committed. The relevant provision of the Swiss Criminal Code refers to "a person who, for selfish reasons, incites someone to commit suicide or who assists that person in doing so will, if the suicide was carried out or attempted, be sentenced to a term of imprisonment (Zuchthaus) of up to 5 years or a term of imprisonment (Gefängnis)."
A person brought to court on a charge could presumably avoid conviction by proving that they were "motivated by the good intentions of bringing about a requested death for the purposes of relieving "suffering" rather than for "selfish" reasons. In order to avoid conviction, the person has to prove that the deceased knew what he or she was doing, had capacity to make the decision, and had made an "earnest" request, meaning he/she asked for death several times. The person helping also has to avoid actually doing the act that leads to death, lest they be convicted under Article 114: Killing on request (Tötung auf Verlangen) - A person who, for decent reasons, especially compassion, kills a person on the basis of his or her serious and insistent request, will be sentenced to a term of imprisonment (Gefängnis). For instance, it should be the suicide subject who actually presses the syringe or takes the pill, after the helper had prepared the setup. This way the country can criminalise certain controversial acts, which many of its people would oppose, while legalising a narrow range of assistive acts for some of those seeking help to end their lives.
In July 2009, British conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife Joan died together at a suicide clinic outside Zürich "under circumstances of their own choosing". Sir Edward was not terminally ill, but his wife was diagnosed with rapidly developing cancer.
In March 2010, the PBS FRONTLINE TV program in the United States showed a documentary called "The Suicide Tourist" which told the story of Professor Craig Ewert, his family, and Dignitas, and their decision to commit assisted suicide using Sodium Pentobarbital in Switzerland after he was diagnosed and suffering with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).
In May 2011, Zurich held a referendum that asked voters whether (i) assisted suicide should be prohibited outright; and (ii) whether Dignitas and other assisted suicide providers should not admit overseas users. Zurich voters heavily rejected both bans, despite anti-euthanasia lobbying from two Swiss social conservative political parties, the Evangelical People's Party of Switzerland and Federal Democratic Union. The outright ban proposal was rejected by eighty four percent of voters, while seventy eight percent voted to keep services open should overseas users require them.
In June 2011, The BBC televised the assisted suicide of Peter Smedley, a canning factory owner, who was suffering from motor neurone disease. The programme - Sir Terry Pratchett's Choosing To Die - told the story of Peter's journey to the end where he used The Dignitas Clinic, a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland, to assist him in carrying out the taking of his own life. The programme shows Peter eating chocolates to counter the unpalatable taste of the liquid he drinks to end his own life. Moments after drinking the liquid, Peter begged for water, gasped for breath and became red, he then fell into a deep sleep where he snored heavily while holding his wife's hand. Minutes later, Peter stopped breathing and his heart stopped beating.
Assisted suicide is illegal in the United Kingdom. Between 2003 and 2006 Lord Joffe made four attempts to introduce bills that would have legalised assisted suicide in England & Wales - all were rejected by the UK Parliament. In the meantime the Director of Public Prosecutions has clarified the criteria under which an individual will be prosecuted for assisting in another person's suicide. These have not been tested by an appellate court as yet Independent MSP Margo MacDonald's "End of Life Assistance Bill" was brought before the Scottish Parliament to permit assisted suicide in January 2010. The Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland, the largest denomination in Scotland, opposed the bill. The bill was rejected by a vote of 85-16 (with 2 abstentions) in December 2010.
In 2013 Lord Falconer of Thoroton tabled an Assisted Dying Bill, seven years after the last attempt to legalise assisted dying in Westminster. A YouGov poll found that 75% of the British public agreed with the proposals of the Bill, which will be debated in 2014.
Assisted suicide is legal in the three American states of Oregon (via the Oregon Death with Dignity Act), Washington (by Washington Death with Dignity Act), and Vermont by the Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act. In Montana (through the 2009 trial court ruling Baxter v. Montana), the court found no public policy against assisting suicide, so consent may be raised as a defense at trial. Oregon and Washington specify some restrictions.
For instance, Oregon requires a physician to prescribe medication but it must be self-administered. The physician must also inform the patient of all alternatives, including palliative care, hospice and pain management options. The prognosis must be for a life span of 6 months or less. The person must be a resident of Oregon (but no minimum length of residency before participating in the Act is necessary). A written request for prescription and two oral requests from the patient are also needed to escape criminal liability, plus written confirmation by doctor that the act is voluntary and informed. This limited model has withstood constitutional scrutiny: Gonzales v Oregon 368 F. 3d 1118 (2004), affirmed by 546 U.S. 243 (2006)
Since the Oregon Death with Dignity Act was passed in 1994, a total of 1,050 people have had DWDA prescriptions written and 673 patients have died from ingesting medications prescribed under the DWDA. Oregon Health Authority. Oregon Public Health Division, 14 Jan 2013. Web. 4 Dec 2013.
Washington's rules and restrictions are similar, if not exactly the same, as Oregon's. Not only does the patient have to meet the above criteria, they also have to be examined by not one, but two doctors licensed in their state of residence. Both doctors must come to the same conclusion about the patient's prognosis. If one doctor does not see the patient fit for the prescription, then the patient must undergo psychological inspection to tell whether or not the patient is in fact capable and mentally fit to make the decision of assisted suicide or not.
In May 2013, Vermont became the fourth state in the union to legalize assisted suicide. Vermont’s House of Representatives voted 75-65 to approve the bill, Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act. This bill states that the qualifying patient must be at least 18, a Vermont resident and suffering from an incurable and irreversible disease, with less than six months to live. Also, two physicians, including the prescribing doctor must make the medical determination.
In January 2014, New Mexico inched closer to being the fifth state in the USA to legalize assisted suicide via a court ruling. “This court cannot envision a right more fundamental, more private or more integral to the liberty, safety and happiness of a New Mexican than the right of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying,” wrote Judge Nan G. Nash of the Second District Court in Albuquerque. The NM attorney general’s office said it was studying the decision and whether to appeal to the State Supreme Court.
Listed below are some major organizations that support assisted suicide:
Compassion & Choices is a non-profit organization that supports, advocates, and educates people about health care options that can expand choice at the end of life. The organization was formed via the merging of Compassion in Dying and End-of-Life Choices organization (formerly known as the Hemlock Society). This organization seeks to educate the public and foster compassion so as to understand why many people who experience needlessly unrelenting pain may wish to end their pain and lives prematurely. Compassion and Choices has been essential in aiding the legislative process in trying to pass laws to help give terminally ill and mentally-able patients a choice in their end of life options. On November 4, 2008, the organization saw Washington become the second state to legalize aid in dying. Voter support for the legalization was an overwhelmingly 59% for to 41% against.
The Death with Dignity National Center is a nonprofit organization that has been in existence since 1993. This organization is most notably associated with the original writing and continued advocating of the Oregon Death with Dignity Law that was enacted on October 27, 1997. This law has become the landmark to changing laws everywhere in the U.S. in association with end of life care of terminally ill patients. The Death with Dignity Center's ultimate goal is to use the Oregon law as a model for other states with the hopes that there will one day be improved health care and treatment options for all terminally ill patients.[third-party source needed]
The organization has assisted with efforts to pass Death with Dignity laws in other states such as Maine in 2000 and Hawaii in 2002. The most recent effort led to the voter approved Washington Death with Dignity Act in 2008.
Dignitas helps terminally ill people to die by providing counseling and lethal drugs. This organization is the only one in Zurich, that will accept foreigners who are terminal, severely mentally ill, or clinically depressed beyond treatment.
Dignity in Dying is a voluntary organization located in London. This group believes that terminally ill patients deserve access to information that provides them with a choice on where to die and who should be present. They fight for change by lobbying to law makers in hopes of improving laws that govern patient choice. They also hope to promote change by educating people who work in the medical and legal professions about end-of-life decisions. This group is trying to get a debate going in the Parliament of the United Kingdom after they were able to get one-hundred of them to sign an Early Day Motion. This motion is aimed at repealing the Suicide Act 1961 which prohibits assisted suicide. The Dignity with Dying organization argues that this Act causes people to go abroad to get help with assisted suicide, turn to love ones for assistance in suicide, or receive the treatment illegally. It is the hope of this association that parliament will overturn the Suicide Act of 1961 that allow patients with incurable diseases to be assisted in suicide.[third-party source needed]
This organization was founded in August 2003 under the name Exit DZ as a direct result of Parliament's decision to deny the death with dying bill. It was in May 2005 that Exit DZ was renamed Dignity DZ. It is the belief of this organization that terminally ill patients should have the option of assisted suicide and should not be given consequences if opting to do so. The parliament of New Zealand has rejected two pieces of legislation regarding the use of assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Although both of these attempts were upsetting for the Dignity DZ organization they are continuing with their agenda to make assisted suicide for terminally ill patients a viable choice. The members of this organization believe that freedom of choice is essential for complete human identity, and believe that free choices should also be incorporated with death and dying decisions.[third-party source needed]
South Africa’s laws currently prohibit assisted dying. It is DignitySA’s belief that it is a ‘Basic Human Right to Die with Dignity’, and that those afflicted with a terminal illness should be allowed the option to end his or her life with assistance in order to preserve personal privacy and dignity as well as alleviate suffering. DignitySA believes that assisted dying should be legalised. DignitySA was started by Professor Sean Davison who inadvertently became a cog in the wheel of South Africa's history when, after assisting his mother to die, being arrested and convicted for an act of compassion, he felt compelled to start this non profit organisation to ensure that No Mum Should Need a Sean.
Dying with Dignity is a non-profit Canadian organization that was founded in 1980. It is concerned with the treatment of terminally ill patients and is aiming to improve the quality of those dying. They advocate for improved hospice services and painless health care services that will provide a peaceful death to terminally ill patients. They are in favor of legislative changes that will allow people to have end of life options that will include assisted suicide if it is what they so desire.[third-party source needed]
Dying with Dignity Victoria (formally known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Victoria Inc.) was founded in 1974. This organization involves itself in educating people about the issue via self-help resources. The organization also pursues public policy and seeks to implement legislative changes that aim to provide dignity for patients at the end of their lives. The association's activities have helped bring about the Medical Treatments ACT (1985) which legalized the right of patients to refuse medical treatment.[clarification needed] The group lobbies to ensure that the laws already established regarding end-of-life rights do not get eliminated.[third-party source needed]
ERGO's mission is to provide information and literature on the right to choose to die by a competent adult, either by assisted suicide or self-deliverance. ERGO, incorporated under Oregon law in 1993 as a nonprofit educational organization, has more than 5,000 supporters (2009). ERGO maintains three web sites www.finalexit.org, www.assistedsuicide.org and www.assistedsuicide.org/blog and delivers an internet news digest focusing on right to die issues to subscribers around the world. ERGO's Bookstore distributes Final Exit, the well-known how-to book by Derek Humphry and contributes the profits to other right to die groups. Since 1999, ERGO has hosted the suicide device research group NuTech which meets in various world cities to examine new ways of legal self-deliverance.[third-party source needed]
Exit supports a permissive model of right-to-die legislation based on work by Glasgow University and using an 'exceptions to the rule' (against euthanasia) format to facilitate transparency and open safeguards. Its criteria are clear voluntariness and "unbearable and unrelievable suffering" and so not limited to a condition that is terminal or purely physical. Its proposed model includes considerations to guard against legal quagmires such as neglience or failed assisted suicides. Exit's primary focus is research, particularly on self-deliverance, as it believes that legislative reform may one day help persons in the future but that the more urgent need is to address concerns of persons suffering now. To this end, it encourages data-led information on methods of self-deliverance and assisted suicide. Exit published the world's first guide on self-deliverance, called How to Die With Dignity (1980); followed by Departing Drugs (1993), and the Five Last Acts series - the most recent of which is Five Last Acts - The Exit Path (2013), the largest published work on self-deliverance to date. It maintains a website and a blog, and publishes a print magazine, Exit Newsletter, for print subscribers, with a mix of academic and non-academic articles.
Final Exit Network is a non-profit organization that is run by volunteers. It is one of the newer organizations in support of assisted suicide as it has only been in operation for the past four years. The group has four main goals which center on promoting the use of advanced directives and stepping in when the wishes of the patient are not being honored. It is the belief of this association that people with irreversible conditions that cause them suffering in ways they can no longer tolerate should be given peaceful and reliable ways to end their lives if they choose. This network does not seek legislative changes as they do not believe that these changes will come fast enough. Instead they have their own operations set up to assist people with a peaceful and painless death. They accept people whom other organizations may turn away. Some examples of the types of people they accept include but are not limited to: people with cancer, Parkinson's disease, and congestive heart failure.
SterbehilfeDeutschland is an non-government organization founded in 2009 by Dr. Roger Kusch and at the time the only one in Germany to perform assisted suicide.
The World Federation of Right to Die Societies was founded in 1980 and encompasses thirty-eight right to die organizations in twenty-three different countries. The federation serves as an international link between organizations whose aim is to provide people with self-determination and dignity during death. The board of directors of this alliance supports legal changes that will allow people who suffer from incurable diseases to be assisted in suicide.[third-party source needed]
A study approved by the Dutch Ministry of Health, the Dutch Ministry of Justice, and the Royal Dutch Medical Association reviewed the efficacy in 111 cases of physician-aided dying (PAD). This showed that 32% of cases had complications. These included 12% with time to death longer than expected (45 min – 14 days), 9% with problems administering the required drugs, 9% with a physical symptom (e.g. nausea, vomiting, myoclonus) and 2% waking from coma. In 18% of cases the doctors provided euthanasia because of problems or failures with PAD.
The Portland (Oregon) Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the Department of Psychiatry at the Oregon Health and Science University set out to assess the prevalence of depression in 58 patients who had chosen PAD. Of 15 patients who went to receive PAD, three (20%) had a clinical depression. All patients who participated in the study were determined in advance to be mentally competent. The authors conclude that the "...current practice of the (Oregon) Death with Dignity Act may fail to protect some patients whose choices are influenced by depression from receiving a prescription for a lethal drug".
In a Dutch study of patients with severe and persistent symptoms requiring sedation, the researchers found that only 9% of patients received a palliative care consultation prior to being sedated.
A 1997 anonymous mail study directed by David A. Asch MD, MBA and Michael L. DeKay, Ph.D, sent out surveys to 1,560 United States critical care nurses, and 73% responded about their feelings involving euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. The survey investigated the reasons why some critical care nurses were denouncers of the practice, while others were supporters of it. One explanation for why some critical care nurses have sympathetic tendencies towards euthanasia is because "some...see euthanasia as a legitimate response to end human suffering". However, Asch and DeKay cited additional factors that influence health care professionals' attitudes towards euthanasia including religion, religiosity, and age.
In the UK, an extensive survey of 3733 medical physicians in 2009 was sponsored by the National Council for Palliative Care, Age Concern, Help the Hospices, Macmillan Cancer Support, the Motor Neurone Disease Association, the MS Society and Sue Ryder Care. It showed that the proportion against a change in the law was 66% against euthanasia and 65% against assisted dying. Opposition to euthanasia and PAS was highest amongst Palliative Care and Care of the Elderly specialists, while more than 90% of palliative care specialists are against a change in the law.
In another UK study, by Glasgow University's Institute of Law & Ethics in Medicine, a postal survey of UK medical practitioners and pharmacists, 54% were in favour of a change in the law to allow physician-assisted suicide to take place in specific circumstances, with only 36% against. 60% of the 1000 practitioners who responded had treated a patient who was considering suicide, 12% personally knew another health professional who had assisted a patient to kill themselves and 4% had themselves provided the means (such as drugs or information about lethal acts) to assist a patient to kill themselves. One finding of the second study was that most medical practitioners found physician-assisted suicide preferable to voluntary euthanasia (43% in comparison to 19%), especially in view of the findings of a first study by the University which showed the public's preference for voluntary euthanasia. There was little by way of differences in the percentages of hospital physicians, medical GPs, surgeons or psychiatrists favouring a change in the law - approximately 48% were in favour. This was in stark contrast to the percentage of pharmacists in favour (72%) and anaesthetists (56%). Pharmacists were twice as likely as medical GPs to endorse the view that "if a patient has decided to end their own life then doctors should be allowed in law to assist". (McLean, S., 1997, "Sometimes a Small Victory", Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine, University of Glasgow.)
Evidence shows that physicians already assist people to die illegally in the UK. In a 2009 survey of 8857 physicians, the proportion of UK deaths involving voluntary euthanasia (i.e. at the patient's request) was 0.21% (CI: 0–0.52), and involuntary euthanasia (i.e. without the patient's request) was 0.30% (0–0.60).
Religion, religiosity, age, gender, previous experience with physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, and work environment are all factors which influence health professionals' attitudes towards physician-assisted death.
Data on the practice of aid in dying can also be found from the reports produced in the jurisdictions where it is legal. For example, the Oregon Health Authority publishes annual reports detailing the enactment of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.
There are many health care professionals, especially those concerned with bioethics, who are opposed to PAS due to the detrimental effects that the procedure can have with regard to vulnerable populations. This argument is known as the "slippery slope". This argument encompasses the apprehension that once PAS is initiated for the terminally ill it will progress to other vulnerable communities, namely the disabled, and may begin to be used by those who feel less worthy based on their demographic or socioeconomic status. In addition, vulnerable populations are more at risk of untimely deaths because, "patients might be subjected to PAD without their genuine consent". However, recent studies claim that the available evidence suggests that the legalization of physician-assisted suicide might actually decrease the prevalence of involuntary euthanasia.
Also, prejudices against disabled people may be enacted with regards to end-of-life care. For example, 'do not resuscitate' orders are more frequently issued for those who become hospitalized and previously suffer from severe disabilities. In addition, many people who suffer from lifelong disabilities suffer from "burn out", which is a general feeling of depression and sadness that comes as a result of years of intolerance and prejudice. Naturally, those individuals suffering from "burn out" are more likely to want to refuse treatment and end their fight for life prematurely.
Some physicians and healthcare practitioners feel there may be a conflict of interest when it comes to abiding with legislation and patient requests for aid in dying. This is based upon a particular interpretation of the Hippocratic Oath stating that physicians should give no deadly medicine. However, the translation and interpretation of the oath continues to be debated and change, and not all physicians swear the oath.
Currently only a small fraction of patients (about 15%) have clear directions in the form of a living will or a health care proxy in place to advise family members or physicians of their end-of-life wishes. This leads to uncomfortable questions if the patient suddenly no longer has the ability to speak for themselves when answers are needed to important medical questions. Even if a patient has selected a proxy they may, "be guilt-ridden, wondering whether they acted too hastily or if their decision was inconsistent with the patient's desires".
In order to preempt some of the difficulties that are associated with end-of-life care many medical schools and nursing programs now stress the importance of early discussions with the patient about their wishes and planning for the future. Unfortunately, since the views concerning physician assisted suicide are so polarized, many doctors are reluctant to discuss withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. In fact, in a recent study of 58 physicians, 19 admitted that they did not feel comfortable discussing end-of-life care with their patients.
In an effort to change the apprehension that is associated with end-of-life care new techniques are being explored to ensure more doctor to patient communication including:
In short, there are two major ways in which the physicians can more easily be made aware of the wishes of their patients. The first simply involves participation in the informed consent process, or "engaging competent patients in comprehensive discussions of treatment options and likely outcomes". The second of these methods involves advance care planning which ensures that patients tell their doctors exactly what they wish to be done in case a medical emergency arises in which they are not able to speak for themselves.