Physician-assisted suicide involves the hastening of death through the administration of lethal drugs, upon request of the patient. Physician-assisted suicide is sometimes known as active euthanasia. It differs from withholding or discontinuing medical treatment in circumstances that will result in death. Withholding or discontinuing medical treatment is sometimes called passive euthanasia. Passive euthanasia is generally accepted, although not without controversy, in the United States as an individual’s right to refuse medical treatment. Examples of passive euthanasia include turning off respirators, stopping medication, discontinuing food and water, or failing to resuscitate.
The Hippocratic Oath has been used by physicians as a code of ethics for more than two thousand years. Attributed to Hippocrates, (ca. 460-370 BCE), the oath provides in part: “I will follow that method of treatment, which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel.
The American Medical Association takes this stance: “It is understandable, though tragic, that some patients in extreme duress-such as those suffering from a terminal, painful, debilitating illness-may come to decide that death is preferable to life. However, allowing physicians to participate in assisted suicide would cause more harm than good. Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.”
Dr. Jack Kevorkian, self-styled “Dr. Death,” has garnered much publicity for his role in physician-assisted suicides. Kevorkian escaped conviction on murder charges several times during the 1990s as he assisted in numerous suicides. Kevorkian operated on his own set of rules to determine whom he would assist; he supposedly assisted more than 130 patients. When he began, Michigan did not have a law that specifically prohibited assisted suicide. As his notoriety grew, the Michigan legislature passed a law prohibiting assisted suicide. The Michigan Supreme Court upheld the statute in 1994, ruling that no constitutional right to suicide exists, including assisted suicide. Kevorkian’s second-degree murder conviction was upheld.
The Supreme Court has determined that no right exists for physician-assisted suicide. However, states are free to enact laws to permit it. Oregon is the only state that currently permits physician-assisted suicide. Technically, however, a death under Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act is not considered suicide, assisted suicide, or homicide. Oregon’s law has survived numerous legal challenges since its enactment in 1994. In January 2006, the United States Supreme Court the law against former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s attempt to render the statute illegal under federal law.
In 1997 President William Jefferson Clinton signed the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act of 1997. The law’s intent was “to clarify Federal law with respect to restricting the use of Federal funds in support of assisted suicide,” euthanasia, or mercy killing. The act banned the funding of assisted suicide through Medicaid, Medicare, military and federal employee health plans, veterans’ health care systems and other federally funded programs. It also prohibited the use of taxpayer funds to subsidize legal assistance or other advocacy in support of legal protection for assisted suicide.