MENOMONEE FALLS — A bill introduced last week to legalize assisted suicide would be disastrous for Wisconsin. It would shrink end-of-life treatment options for older adults, people with disabilities and others facing terminal diagnoses.
Assisted suicide compromises the role of a physician as a healer and runs contrary to the position of the largest medical society in the country, the American Medical Association. The physician-patient relationship is one that must operate on trust that the physician will do everything in his or her power to heal the patient, and never do the patient harm. The American Medical Association recognizes how assisted suicide undermines the primary role of the physician as healer and reaffirmed its opposition again this year.
Proponents of assisted suicide cite unbearable pain at the end of life as a reason to legalize assisted suicide. But with all the advances in palliative care, physicians can manage pain better than ever and make patients comfortable. Interestingly, in the state of Oregon where assisted suicide is legal, pain isn’t even among the top five reasons patients report seeking out assisted suicide. The chief reasons patients in Oregon give for wanting to die by assisted suicide is “loss of autonomy,” “decreasing ability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable” and “loss of dignity.”
Legalized assisted suicide also opens the door to perverse incentives for insurance companies looking to cut costs. Dr. Brian Callister, a Nevada physician, experienced firsthand insurance companies denying his patients treatments while suggesting assisted suicide pills instead. If assisted suicide becomes legal, palliative care and other life-extending treatment options would quickly disappear because they are costly. The cost of administering a series of deadly pills will always be cheaper than real treatment options.
Furthermore, the process is largely experimental. Some victims of assisted suicide have experienced long, slow deaths after ingesting pills meant to end their life quickly. Some have reportedly yelled in pain while others succumb at an alarmingly slow rate — so much so that even proponents of the practice wince at these horrifying outcomes.
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Finally, doctors are woefully inaccurate when estimating how long their patients have left to live. Often, patients defy the odds and live longer, healthier lives than doctors ever thought possible. J.J. Hanson, a New York volunteer fireman and a Marine Corps war veteran, outlived his terminal brain cancer diagnosis by four years.
In 2014, Hanson was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and doctors gave him just a few months to live. Fortunately for Hanson, he sought other medical opinions and was able to undergo experimental treatments that allowed him to significantly outlive his prognoses. Had assisted suicide been legal in New York, Hanson may have been tempted to prematurely end his life. He, like many people who receive terminal diagnoses, experienced periods of depression when it was hard to find hope.
As Hanson’s case shows, terminal prognoses are educated guesses at best. For Hanson and other patients in a similar position, legalized assisted suicide creates systems that decrease patients’ ability to choose their course of treatment.
Assisted suicide is a dangerous policy that is impossible to regulate. The so-called safeguards that lawmakers say will protect against coercion are ineffective and unenforceable. The policy of assisted suicide undermines the role of the physician as healer and creates distrust between the patient and the physician.
We should all be able to agree that Wisconsin patients deserve better than assisted suicide.
Terminal prognoses are educated guesses at best. Legalized assisted suicide creates systems that decrease patients’ ability to choose their course of treatment.