Reasons for Seeking Physician-Assisted Suicide

Doctor holding patient's hand in hospital
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Why do people seek physician-assisted suicide? As this option has been available in selected states and countries for decades, the typical scenario is probably different from what you imagine or fear.

The good news is that vulnerable patients do not appear to be pressured to take this option. Instead, the typical patient has cancer, is older, white, well-educated, and does not have extreme pain. He has lost independence and quality of life, fears increased pain, and prefers to choose the timing of his exit.

Loss of Control and Quality of Life

Great strides have been made in improving end-of-life care through palliative care and hospice programs, but sometimes it's just not enough. Many elderly and chronically ill patients in America die in pain, and many nursing homes are understaffed.

Chronic and life-limiting illness can also make a person feel like they have lost all control of their lives. The body isn’t doing what it should and there’s no way to stop it. Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) may feel like a way to regain some of that control. If they can’t control the illness, they can at least control how they die.

The quality of life is the driving force behind patients seeking PAS. Loss of autonomy, or not being able to care for oneself and make one's own decisions, is reported in many cases of PAS in Oregon. Closely following are the loss of one's dignity and the loss of being able to participate in enjoyable activities. It goes without saying that physical suffering greatly diminishes the quality of life as well.

For those who are suffering in their final days of life, death can be a welcome event. They may feel that it will permanently relieve their suffering and alleviate the burden on their loved ones. Physician-assisted suicide may seem like the best option for them and their families.

Physician-Assisted Suicide Statistics

In U.S. jurisdictions where legal, the percentage of physician-assisted deaths were 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent of all deaths, while in the Netherlands it is 1.8 percent to 2.9 percent of all deaths.

U.S.: Physician-assisted suicide is legal in nine states as of 2019: Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Vermont, California, D.C., Hawaii, Maine and New Jersey. It has been legal in Oregon since 1997 and the Oregon Health Authority produces a yearly report on PAS.

The reasons patients gave when requesting PAS in Oregon have been consistent in reports for 20 years:

  • 90.5 percent reported a decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable
  • 91.7 percent reported loss of autonomy
  • 66.7 percent reported loss of dignity

More Oregon statistics include:

  • As of January 22, 2019, OHA had received reports of 168 people who had died during 2018 from ingesting the medications prescribed under DWDA, an increase compared to 158 during 2017.
  • Since the law was passed in 1997, prescriptions have been written for a total of 2,217 people under the DWDA; 1,459 people (65.8%) have died from ingesting the medications. During 2018, the estimated rate of DWDA deaths was 45.9 per 10,000 total deaths.
  • Of the 168 DWDA deaths during 2018, most patients (79.2%) were aged 65 years or older.

Canada: Physician-assisted suicide was legalized in Quebec in 2016 and nationally in June 2016.

The Netherlands:

  • Physician-assisted suicide is legal under strict circumstances.
  • The right to choose physician-assisted suicide remains highly favored.
  • 60 percent of Dutch physicians have granted requests for PAS.

Belgium: Legalized euthanasia in 2002.

Luxembourg: Legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide in 2009.

U.K.: Physician-assisted suicide is illegal. The current movement there is to focus on palliative care, not euthanasia.

Elsewhere in the World: Physician-assisted suicide is legal under strictly defined regulations in Colombia, and Japan.

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Article Sources

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