Euthanasia is defined as intentionally ending one’s life when suffering from a terminal illness or severe disability (Youdin, 2016). Euthanasia is further separated into active euthanasia, which is intentionally causing death, usually through a lethal dose of medication, and passive euthanasia occurs when life-sustaining support is withdrawn. This can occur through the removal of a respirator, feeding tube, or heart-lung machine.
Physician-assisted suicide is a form of active euthanasia whereby a physician prescribes the means by which a person can die. The United States federal government does not legislate physician-assisted suicide as laws are handled at the state level (ProCon.org, 2016). Six states currently allow physician-assisted suicide. The person seeking physician-assisted suicide must be: (1) at least 18 years of age, (2) have six or less months until expected death, and (3) obtain two oral (or least 15 days apart) and one written request from a physician (ProCon.org, 2016). Table 10.4 lists the states that allow physician-assisted suicide and the date the act was passed.
Table 10.4 Six States with Legal Physician-Assisted Suicide
Passed November 8, 1994, but enacted October 27, 1997
November 4, 2008
December 31, 2009
May 20, 2013
October 5, 2015
November 8, 2016
Since 1997 when the law was passed in Oregon, 1545 people had lethal prescriptions written and 991 patients had died from the medication by the end of 2015 (Oregon Public Health Division, 2016). Canada and several European countries, including Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, also allow physician-assisted suicide. As of 2014, Belgium is the only country that allows the right to die to those under the age of 18. Stricter conditions were put in place for children, including parental consent, the child must be suffering from a serious and incurable disease, the child must understand what euthanasia means, and the child’s death must be expected in the near future (Narayan, 2016).
The practice of physician-assisted euthanasia is certainly controversial with religious, legal, ethical, and medical experts weighing in with opinions. The main areas where there is disagreement between those who support physician-assisted euthanasia and those who do not include:
whether a person has the legal right to die,
whether active euthanasia would become a “slippery slope” and start a trend to legalize deaths for individuals who may be disabled or unable to give consent,
how to interpret the Hippocratic Oath and what it exactly means for physicians to do no harm,
whether the government should be involved in end-of-life decisions, and
specific religious restrictions against deliberately ending a life (ProCon.org, 2016).
Not surprisingly, there are strong opinions on both sides of this topic. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 47% of Americans approve and 49% disapprove of laws that would allow a physician to prescribe lethal doses of drugs that a terminally ill patient could use to commit suicide (Pew Research Center, 2013). Attitudes on physician-assisted suicide were roughly the same in 2005, when 46% approved and 45% disapproved.