The Heritage Foundation 24 March 2015
Allowing physician-assisted suicide would be a grave mistake for four reasons. First, it would endanger the weak and vulnerable. Second, it would corrupt the practice of medicine and the doctor–patient relationship. Third, it would compromise the family and intergenerational commitments. And fourth, it would betray human dignity and equality before the law. Instead of helping people to kill themselves, we should offer them appropriate medical care and human presence. We should respond to suffering with true compassion and solidarity. Doctors should help their patients to die a dignified death of natural causes, not assist in killing. Physicians are always to care, never to kill.
The Hippocratic Oath proclaims: “I will keep [the sick] from harm and injustice. I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.” This is an essential precept for a flourishing civil society. No one, especially a doctor, should be permitted to kill intentionally, or assist in killing intentionally, an innocent neighbor.
Human life need not be extended by every medical means possible, but a person should never be intentionally killed. Doctors may help their patients to die a dignified death from natural causes, but they should not kill their patients or help them to kill themselves. This is the reality that such euphemisms as “death with dignity” and “aid in dying” seek to conceal.
In 2015, at least 18 state legislatures and the District of Columbia are considering whether to allow physician-assisted suicide (PAS). Legalizing physician-assisted suicide, however, would be a grave mistake because it would:
- Endanger the weak and vulnerable,
- Corrupt the practice of medicine and the doctor–patient relationship,
- Compromise the family and intergenerational commitments, and
- Betray human dignity and equality before the law.
First, PAS endangers the weak and marginalized in society. Where it has been allowed, safeguards purporting to minimize this risk have proved to be inadequate and have often been watered down or eliminated over time. People who deserve society’s assistance are instead offered accelerated death.
Second, PAS changes the culture in which medicine is practiced. It corrupts the profession of medicine by permitting the tools of healing to be used as techniques for killing. By the same token, PAS threatens to fundamentally distort the doctor–patient relationship because it reduces patients’ trust of doctors and doctors’ undivided commitment to the life and health of their patients. Moreover, the option of PAS would provide perverse incentives for insurance providers and the public and private financing of health care. Physician-assisted suicide offers a cheap, quick fix in a world of increasingly scarce health care resources.
Third, PAS would harm our entire culture, especially our family and intergenerational obligations. The temptation to view elderly or disabled family members as burdens will increase, as will the temptation for those family members to internalize this attitude and view themselves as burdens. Physician-assisted suicide undermines social solidarity and true compassion.
Fourth, PAS’s most profound injustice is that it violates human dignity and denies equality before the law. Every human being has intrinsic dignity and immeasurable worth. For our legal system to be coherent and just, the law must respect this dignity in everyone. It does so by taking all reasonable steps to prevent the innocent, of any age or condition, from being devalued and killed. Classifying a subgroup of people as legally eligible to be killed violates our nation’s commitment to equality before the law—showing profound disrespect for and callousness to those who will be judged to have lives no longer “worth living,” not least the frail elderly, the demented, and the disabled. No natural right to PAS exists, and arguments for such a right are incoherent: A legal system that allows assisted suicide abandons the natural right to life of all its citizens.