Should physician-assisted suicide be legalized nationally?

Ashton Gergen, Miranda Ehrlich

This is the third in an occasional college debate series hosted by Today’s Question where we invite debate clubs to frame and guide the day’s discussion. Positions taken by the debaters don’t necessarily reflect their views. As always, personal attacks aren’t allowed in this space. The comment thread continues to be open to all. Join in!

For this series, we welcome members of the University of Minnesota debate team to defend or challenge the argument for the national legalization of physician-assisted suicide.

Defending the argument is Miranda Ehrlich, a 2015 graduate of the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities where she double-majored in political science and communication studies. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in public affairs at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Some of you may be familiar with the story of Brittany Maynard, a young woman who was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 29. Maynard, who was newly married, had no desire to die. But after enduring invasive surgeries that failed to stop the growth of the tumor, she was out of effective treatment options. Faced with the prospect of a dying process that could include severe, drug-resistant pain, personality changes, and loss of verbal, cognitive and motor function, Maynard decided to reassert control. She moved to Oregon, one of the five states where physician aid-in-dying is legal, and obtained medication from a doctor so that she could control the timing and circumstances of her death.

Maynard’s experience exemplifies the case for physician aid-in-dying. While the quality of palliative care is better than ever, a portion of terminally ill patients still face a dying process that involves severe pain that cannot be alleviated. Some of these patients prefer a hastened death to the alternative. Failing to honor this choice condemns patients to prolonged suffering against their will. Allowing for physician aid-in-dying is compassionate and respects patient autonomy.

One potentially compelling objection to physician aid-in-dying is the possibility that individuals, particularly those with disabilities, may be coerced into taking their own lives. However, a strong regulatory system can be put into place to prevent these abuses from occurring. In Oregon, a comprehensive study found that physician aid-in-dying had no disparate impact on various groups originally thought to be at-risk, including the elderly, minorities, and people with disabilities. While opponents of physician aid-in-dying often draw from the Netherlands and other European countries to build their case, studies from Oregon should be given greater weight because they more accurately account for the culture and regulations surrounding physician aid-in-dying in the United States.

Thus, physician aid-in-dying should be legalized for mentally competent, terminally ill adults with a prognosis of six months or less to live.

Arguing against physician-assisted suicide is Ashton Gergen, a Junior communication studies major at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. She can be followed on Twitter @ashton_gergen.

One of the foremost standing issues in the argument of physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is cost. Patients who would be candidates for PAS are often paying for medical care to treat their condition. These treatments are often expensive – PAS treatments tend to cost just a few hundred dollars. This discrepancy in cost creates an unjustified pedestal for the option of PAS.

From a government health care standard, health care costs are high for these cases, both to pay for and produce them, whereas the PAS treatment only costs between $30 and $50, which could lead to an over prescription of the procedure to cut on costs. This, as stated by the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, “could fill the void from cutbacks for treatment and care with the ‘treatment’ of death.”

Those who have made claims for the legalization of PAS have made arguments about end of life pain and suffering. We have to take into account arguments like those of Dr. Herbert Hendin in his book, “Seduced by Death,” that “some terminally ill patients have suicidal thoughts, but ‘these patients usually respond well to treatment for depressive illness and pain medication and are then grateful to be alive.’” It would make sense for patients diagnosed terminally ill to face an emotional downturn, in most circumstances, learning that we do not have as much time as expected would cause such a reaction. But as Dr. Hendin claims, with the realization and treatment of that, patients can manage pain and live out the rest of their lives enjoying what time they have and can gain, through treatment. Some have made claims that PAS being illegal would be like government mandated suffering, but this, according to executive director Rita Marker and policy analyst Kathi Hamlon for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, is like claiming “laws against selling contaminated food are government mandated starvation.” Laws against PAS are to protect patients from abuse and unfair treatment.

Today’s Question: Should physician-assisted suicide be legalized nationally?