Editor’s Note: Ronald M. Green is a professor for the study of ethics and human values at Dartmouth College. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Brittany Maynard, 29, who had cancer, ended her life under Oregon's Death With Dignity Act
Ronald Green supports efforts to expand access to physician-assisted suicide
He says it's an expression of respect for human freedom, autonomy and dignity
Green: Why not allow people who believe differently to end their lives in way they see fit?
I strongly support Brittany Maynard’s impassioned efforts to expand everyone’s access to physician-assisted suicide. It is tragic that she died so young, but her life has made an important contribution to us all.
I am an adamant opponent of physicians ever becoming agents of death. The lessons of the Holocaust, which began with a euthanasia program, are that once medical professionals become accustomed to administering death, we have created a frightening corps of people whose very “medical” prestige facilitates mass killing of the vulnerable. Hence I oppose physician involvement in capital punishment (via lethal injection) and all forms of euthanasia in which physicians are actively involved.
But physicians are not actively involved in physician-assisted suicide. In jurisdictions where physician-assisted suicide is permitted and where proper safeguards are in place to prevent depressed or otherwise ineligible people from access to lethal drugs, physicians play a standard medical role of ascertaining applicants’ eligibility for the appropriate medications. Then the physicians get out of the way.
It may seem strange to say this, but the reason that you and I as free individuals cannot access life-ending drugs is because governments have imposed rules that require prescription approval by physicians for such drugs. Hence, it is governments, and doctors acting on their behalf, who normally – and wisely – block our access to dangerous medications.
Where physician-assisted suicide is allowed, physicians withdraw from this role – they stop blocking our free access to the drugs we need to end our life. They are not administering death by writing a prescription.
Just the opposite, they get out of our way as free people and allow us to do what we want to do. Physicians cease their active blocking role and literally do nothing. We are the ones who act to end our lives.
I feel this is appropriate. In addition, I believe that people who are facing the end of life – terminally ill patients such as Maynard – and those suffering grievous and irreversible pain should be free to end their life. This is a simple expression of respect for human freedom, autonomy and dignity, and it is also an expression of compassion to allow them to do it.
Experience with physician-assisted suicide has shown that many people who go through the process of applying for it do not finally avail themselves of the right to do so. This tells us that physician-assisted suicide plays an important role in providing comfort and assurance that one will not be forced to suffer beyond what one can bear.
There are many who, on religious or other grounds, oppose suicide in any form. I respect their beliefs, and I would defend their right to refuse to end their lives by their own hand. But mutual respect here also requires that we allow others who believe differently to end their lives in the way they see fit, as Brittany Maynard has now courageously done.