To End Patient Suffering, Eliminate the Patient? Why “Death with Dignity” Bills Are Unethical

National   Josh Shepherd   Apr 16, 2015   |   1:00PM    Washington, DC

A doctor, a reporter, a nun and a philosophy Ph.D. walk into a room…

Such was the setting of a Washington, DC roundtable event entitled “Living Life to Its Fullest” – as Dr. Farr Curlin (Duke University), Kathryn Jean Lopez (National Review Institute), Sister Constance Veit (Little Sisters of the Poor) and Heritage Foundation expert Ryan T. Anderson brought their real-world expertise to bear on physician-assisted suicide.

Farr Curlin - Sister Constance Veit - The Heritage Foundation
Dr. Farr Curlin and Sister Constance Veit discuss euthanasia (Photo: The Heritage Foundation)

This year alone, 18 states and Washington, DC are actively considering new laws to provide “death with dignity” – legalizing the practice of a person taking deadly drugs to end their life prematurely, also known as euthanasia.

Only last week, an assisted-suicide bill in Connecticut was defeated after a diverse statewide coalition stood to oppose it.

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Image: The Heritage Foundation

Farr Curlin, M.D., a practicing physician who has counseled countless patients facing terminal illness and critical geriatric care issues, pointed to the Hippocratic Oath as a first principle for truly compassionate medical care.

I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect, reads the ancient oath which most medical students still swear by upon graduation. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness I will guard my life and my art.

“Why is this something that physicians have, with tremendous consistency over 2,000 years, continued to affirm and profess?” Dr. Curlin began, proceeding to answer with three reasons the Hippocratic Oath safeguards the doctor-patient relationship and protects the most vulnerable in society.

“Watching people suffer is hard. It stirs up in us discomfort,” said Dr. Curlin. “It’s not just their physical pain, which we have many effective treatments for; but their debility, dependence, fatigue, sadness and loss is hard to watch.”

He gives three reasons why he is committed not to kill a patient or help them kill themselves:

  1. This commitment is an essential guard against the temptation to end patient suffering by eliminating the patient who suffers.

“Through all of human history, there arises the temptation when we observe suffering – to get rid of it by any means possible,” noted Dr. Curlin.

“For millennia, physicians have made a solemn commitment not to kill our patients as a hedge against this very natural temptation,” he continued. “If you care for people who are sick and dying, you’re going to experience this temptation.”

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  1. This commitment gives physicians freedom to effectively treat symptoms.

Dr. Curlin recounted how, in difficult situations involving potentially terminal illness, family will misinterpret the purpose of treatment and ask, “Are you killing them?”

“For me to be able to say, ‘As your physician, I will not intentionally hasten death’ focuses us back on relieving symptoms,” he said. “Never aiming at death gives physicians a boundary to treat people effectively.”

  1. This commitment makes it possible for patients to trust their physicians.

“This question of trust has always been paramount,” Dr. Curlin continues. “While our plural culture disagrees on many things, people have supported medicine because there is agreement across moral communities: preserving and restoring patients’ health is a good thing.”

“Whether black or white, rich or poor, conservative or liberal, all see this as a good thing. Not true for intentionally hastening the death of your patient – particularly among the poor or elderly.”

Little Sisters of the Poor
Little Sisters of the Poor assist the frail elderly (Photo: The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty)

“The cry for physician-assisted suicide is not coming out of historically marginalized communities; this cry for ‘more choice’ is coming from the community that already has the most choices,” he concluded.

The roundtable dialogue progressed to Sister Constance Veit, who has served for years with Little Sisters of the Poor – an international Catholic community that cares for the elderly around the world. The group has made headlines recently for their refusal to participate in the Obamacare abortion drug mandate for insurance plans.

Sister Constance references the story of Maggie Karner, a video shown that reveals one woman’s journey to learn from a terminal illness what “death with grace and dignity” truly looks like:

LifeNews Note: Josh M. Shepherd has served in communications/marketing roles for the past 10 years at Focus on the Family and The Heritage Foundation. Reprinted with permission from Bound4LIFE.