Survey Finds Most Doctors Opposed to Physician-Assisted Suicide

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 12, 2013   |   10:20AM   |   Washington, DC

A new survey conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine finds most doctors are opposed to the practice of physician-assisted suicide.

The New England Journal of Medicine questioned readers, most of whom are practicing physicians in the United States and nations around the world, and it received more than 2,000 responses to its survey. About two-thirds of doctors, including two-thirds in the U.S., opposed doctor-aided suicide.

Assisted suicide is currently legal in three U.S. states — Oregon, Vermont and Washington — and in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

From a report on the survey:

Most readers of the journal are doctors. Some said assisting a suicide violates a physician’s oath to do no harm and might lead to euthanasia — intentional killing to relieve suffering and pain.

“What you see is a debate between the old paternalistic view of medicine — with the notion that you always have to keep the best interest of the patient at heart — and a more contemporary ethical perspective — that to me over-stresses the patient’s autonomy,” said Kenneth Doka, professor of gerontology at the College of New Rochelle in New York and a senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America.

Doka, who is also a Lutheran minister, believes that physician-assisted suicide shouldn’t be seen in a vacuum, but should take into account the patient’s wishes plus the impact on the patient’s family and friends.

“That’s the piece that’s missing here,” he said. “It’s not just the effect on the patient and the physician. It’s about what does this mean for the rest of the intimate network of the patient.”

Many respondents on both sides of the argument spoke of the importance of palliative care — relieving pain and making the end of life comfortable and dignified.

Dr. R. Sean Morrison, president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, said palliative care is the issue the journal should be discussing.

“The focus should be on ensuring that people with serious illness and those at the end of life get the best quality palliative care,” he said. “When high-quality palliative care is provided, people are comfortable, they live longer, they spend time with their families and the worries that drive somebody to say ‘I would like assisted death’ typically vanish,” he said.

The recent Gallup poll indicated that 45% of Americans were opposed to assisted suicide, which is the highest level since the poll question began in 1996. It also found responses depending on the wording of the question. Gallup reported that:

… current support — with 51% of Americans in favor and 45% opposed — is similar to that of the previous three years, and is nearly identical to attitudes in 1996. In the interim, support steadily rose to 68% by 2001 and remained above 60% through 2004, after which it started to falter.