Opinion: The ethical slippery slope of assisted suicide

By Dr. Anthony Vigil

While New Mexico and other states are grappling with the question of whether to allow doctors to write prescriptions for drugs that terminally ill patients can take to commit suicide, countries such as Belgium and The Netherlands are pushing the envelope in distressing ways.

For those who claim there is no evidence of a slippery slope in abuse of physician-assisted suicide once implemented, I offer several problems presented by the Belgium and Netherlands experiments. In these countries, it is legal for physicians to directly euthanize patients.

For example, within the last 10 years, several patients who have opted for euthanasia have then agreed to donate their organs. This was eerily predicted by Wesley Smith in his 1993 Newsweek article, Whispers of Strangers.

For those who agree with doctor-assisted suicide, this is a no-brainer. Why not get the organs right away? For those against doc-assisted suicide, this is one more opening of an ethical Pandoras Box.

Does the desire to donate organs play a role in the patients suicide decision? Do the pharmaceutical suicide agents affect the donors organs? Ethically, what is the difference between the doctor who prescribes the suicide drug and the surgeon who takes the vital organs of someone still alive? Couldnt we eliminate the middle-man, skip the pharmaceutical agent and harvest the vital organs of a live patient who was bent on suicide anyway?

In Belgium, twins who were going blind decided suicide was a better choice than to struggle with blindness; they ended their lives with physician-directed euthanasia. Belgium also is considering allowing minors to consent to euthanasia.

According to the Smith article, the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) has condemned doctors who refuse to euthanize legally qualified patients due to conscientious objections. KNMG also states that if a physician cannot or does not wish to honor a patients request for euthanasia or assited suicide, he must give the patient a timely and clear explanation of why, and furthermore must then refer or transfer the patient to another physician in good time. The same paper by KNMG, states that when patients dont qualify for legal euthanasia, a doctor may refer them to how-to suicide literature.

Proponents of physician-assisted suicide in the U.S. will object, saying physician-assisted suicide is not the same as physician-directed euthanasia as practiced in Europe. I reply that Europeans are not naive; they realize there is no moral difference between a physician injecting the suicidal agent themselves vs. having the patient do it (both euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are legal in Belgium and The Netherlands).

Similarly, there is no difference between a physician sending a patient a loaded gun in the mail or hiring a hit man, and giving explicit instructions on hundreds of painless ways to commit suicide assuming the patient consents. In either case, the physician is providing what ethicists call formal cooperation to an act. In the case of physician-assisted suicide, the intent is the same: death of the patient to relieve suffering. Obviously, physicians have been relieving pain and suffering for thousands of years, and we can do it legally and compassionately up to and including the point of hastening death.

So we see that the Europeans have gone beyond the slippery slope and are falling headlong into the abyss of the Culture of Death. Perhaps the United States is meant to drag them out of this spin with intelligent, clear thinking and reason or be dragged into a tailspin of suicide.

Dr. Anthony Vigil is a general surgeon practicing in New Mexico.

Opinions communicated in Solutions represent the view of individual authors, and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.