Should Doctors Prescribe Death?

Words matter, and so, obviously, does policy.  Yesterday, both met at a Joint Commission on Health Care (JCHC) work group meeting studying the question of legalizing “Medical Aid-in-Dying.”

What is that, you ask?

It’s a soft euphemism being used to describe physician-assisted suicide.

Theoretically, the goal of the study is to answer some key questions about the ramifications of enacting such a policy in Virginia, and at yesterday’s meeting, various stakeholders were given the opportunity to weigh in, including Family Foundation VP of Government Relations, Chris Freund.

Our position was made clear: any effort to legalize physician-assisted suicide will be met with our fullest and strongest opposition.

Currently, only six states have statutes permitting physician-assisted suicide, which is defined as the “ability of a patient to obtain (or a doctor to prescribe) a medication to end their (a patient’s) life if [the patient is] competent, terminally ill, and over 18.” The movement to enact such legislation is gaining ground around the nation.  Supporters argue that terminally ill patients deserve the right end their own suffering, but their focus on “death with dignity” typically paints over the vast potential for abuse allowed by physician-assisted suicide laws, and the kind of society we are building if we allow physician-assisted suicide to become a reality throughout the Commonwealth.

And while “terminally ill” is clearly defined in medicine, most state laws that allow the killing of the terminally ill prescribe stipulations such as a patient must have fewer than six months to live.  We raised the question, “How accurate are doctors when they predict how long someone has to live?”  One doctor on the work group admitted, “Doctors are notoriously terrible” at predicting the length of a terminal illness.

This is one of the hundreds of philosophical and practical questions that arise when we discuss allowing people to commit suicide.

There is no question that intentionally causing the premature death of another human being violates the oath that physicians take to “do no harm.”  Terminally ill patients deserve our love and support, they deserve unrestricted access to proper hospice and palliative care, and they deserve the dignity that comes from life.  What they do not deserve is a system that endorses the deliberate hastening of their death.  If we as a society are willing to accept the idea that physicians can be complicit in causing death in some circumstances, there is no telling where the line will be drawn. 

There will be an opportunity for public input in this discussion in the coming weeks.  We will update you so that you can make your voice for life heard!

On another note, the study is the result of a letter from Delegate Kaye Kory submitted a letter to the JCHC requesting a study reviewing the issue.  With the financial limitations faced by the Commonwealth and the cost to taxpayers of these studies, it seems more than reasonable that for a commission to spend time and taxpayer money on a study, it should require legislation from the General Assembly.  Many do, but all should.