As a physician assistant working for the last 46 years, I have spent my life caring for and treating the illnesses of many patients, which included easing their pain, especially when their diseases, or the resulting outcomes, could not be cured.
Like all health care practitioners, I swore an oath to serve as a healer. As a result, if I ever told a patient that, instead of seeking treatment, they should end their life, I would deserve to lose my medical license.
Yet that is exactly what Connecticut legislators are proposing.
Recently, assisted suicide advocates have put forward a new assisted suicide bill for Connecticut. The bill would make it possible for patients to petition the state, through their doctors, for assisted suicide chemicals. Supporters of the bill claim that assisted suicide is necessary to relieve the pain of a small number of people living in Connecticut, but their claims are simply untrue. Assisted suicide is categorically not a necessary step to treat pain, and it will undoubtably not be used by a small number of human beings for that purpose.
My years as a physician assistant, primarily in surgical specialties and critical care, has contributed to my understanding of pain, especially how to treat it. Just as there are numerous conditions which cause pain, there are many ways in which you can ease a patient’s pain—and none of them involve the patient killing themselves, especially with the complicity of a medical professional sworn to preserve life. It is wrong and false to claim that the only way to end a patient’s pain is to end their life entirely.
Additionally, despite the claims of the assisted suicide proponents, and their allies in the legislature, the vast majority of people who request assisted suicide do so for reasons other than pain. Oregon, the first state to legalize assisted suicide, has spent more time collecting data from assisted suicide applicants than any other state in America. The state’s data shatters the narrative that assisted suicide is needed, and will be used, primarily to relieve chronic, unbearable pain.
Oregon created a list of the most common motivations which people have cited in their assisted suicide applications, and pain failed to make the top five. Instead of citing pain, applicants consistently cited existential or disability-related concerns as their reasons for requesting assisted suicide. These reasons include: reduced ability to engage in enjoyable activities; loss of autonomy, loss of dignity; feeling like a burden on family/friends; and loss, of certain bodily functions. These are real problems that people face at the end of life, but they should be addressed with the appropriate interdisciplinary care, not suicide.
Oregon’s data shows that this is not actually a discussion about pain, and how best to medically treat it, but rather it is a broader discussion of worth —whose life is worth living, and whose life is not. Such an idea is appalling just for that reason alone, but it also means that legislators want to pass a medical bill for social and political reasons. This approach is both dangerous and misguided. Science and ethics, not politics, must drive medical policy.
The American Medical Association (AMA) recognizes this, and recently reaffirmed its opposition to assisted suicide. The AMA argued that assisted suicide undermines the physician/patient relationship, and it is “fundamentally incompatible” with the physician’s role as healer.
The AMA also argued that assisted suicide is almost impossible to control, meaning this bill’s so-called “safeguards” will be inadequate at best. It is easy to see why. When your criterion is a subjective judgment of whether an individual’s life is “worth” living, you cannot implement consistent and permanent restrictions. There will inevitably be exceptions to rules which legislators set, and those rules will be changed until they are ultimately meaningless and ineffective.
An independent federal agency, the National Council on Disability, (NCD) confirmed this, and reported that assisted suicide “safeguards” are ineffective and lack oversight. When assisted suicide is legalized, far more people end up choosing assisted suicide than lawmakers claim will do so. Just as important, however, is the fact that these people pursue assisted suicide for reasons different than those which lawmakers cite, and legal “safeguards” are ineffective at stopping them. Passing this legislation will result in lives lost, many of which could be saved through interdisciplinary care.
As a result, Connecticut lawmakers claim that assisted suicide is heavily regulated and necessary to ease the suffering of a small number of people, but their claims are simply untrue. Assisted suicide is a political policy which undermines a doctor’s role as healer. It is overwhelmingly used based on judgments of individual people’s worth, and it is poorly regulated. We cannot let such a policy come to Connecticut.
Jack Pike, is a Certified Physician Assistant at Saint Francis Hospital, Occupation Health Department, a Distinguished Fellow, American Academy of Physicians Assistants, a member of the Member, Board of Trustees, Christian Medical and Dental Associations and an Adjunct Clinical Assistant Professor, Quinnipiac University.