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Debate continues over assisted suicide

angell January 1, 1997
Web posted at: 10:20 p.m. EST

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From Correspondent Dan Rutz

ATLANTA (CNN) -- The executive editor of the New England Journal of Medicine is one of many speaking out about physician-assisted suicide in advance of upcoming arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Speaking for herself and not her magazine, Dr. Marcia Angell is in favor of physician-assisted suicide for dying patients who want it.

According to Angell, helping suffering patients die is consistent with the doctor's role as a healer. "This is a very intimate, private, basic, fundamental right in my view, which is not to be forced to endure protracted suffering at the end of life."


Angell believes it is only a matter of time before the procedure is legalized. In an editorial for her magazine, she wrote, "Sooner or later, given the need and widespread public support, physician-assisted suicide will be demanded of a compassionate profession."

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments next week over whether dying patients should be allowed to commit suicide with a doctor's help. Their decision is expected within six months.

The Justice Department has already called on the Supreme Court to say terminally ill patients have no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide.


'Much more civilized'

No matter what the court rules, it will be five years too late for Greg Hayes. He helped his mother take her life with a concoction of drugs and alcohol, because he feared her widespread ovarian cancer would soon render her an invalid.

"It would be so much more civilized if we did it with a doctor's help. It wouldn't be clandestine. It would be a normal part of the end," Hayes said.

In the Netherlands, it already is. Although it is technically illegal, doctors there are allowed to prescribe and even inject lethal drugs for their dying patients who request a scheduled death.


Another says safeguards won't work

Dr. Herbert Hendin, the head of the American Suicide Foundation, is against instituting such a policy in the United States. He says safeguards against potential abuses won't work.

"When you see euthanasia or assisted suicide in practice, you find that, rather than increasing the control of patients -- which is what the advocates hope it will accomplish -- it accomplishes the opposite. It increases the power and control of doctors," Hendin said.

He worries that doctors or others can talk depressed or ambivalent patients into ending their lives early.

Angell says that is a risk worth taking.

"We can just do the best we can, and the voluntary nature of suicide is to me the best protection we have," she said. "The patient, at some level, must agree to do it, otherwise he won't swallow the pills."

Both sides agree that if modern medicine were better at preventing lingering deaths, there would be little support for physician-assisted suicide.

But while Angell calls for improvements in end-of-life care, Hendin argues that if planned dying becomes an option, there will be little incentive for research that would make natural death more bearable.


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