Endings and Beginnings: Law, Medicine, and Society in Assisted Life and Death

By Larry I. Palmer | Go to book overview
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Chapter 5

The Role of Physicians in Our Dying: Relievers of “Suffering”?

Why should a spouse or a child or a dedicated health professional be subjected to the threat of a legal proceeding for easing the suffering of a desperately ill person who consciously and rationally asks that the anguish be ended?

Dr. Timothy Quill 1

Physicians other than Dr. Kevorkian have introduced the term “physician-assisted suicide” and “planned death” into our lexicon. Dr. Timothy Quill, a former director of a hospice care program and a primary care physician, published an article in the highly respected New England Journal of Medicine in 1991 detailing his prescribing of barbiturates for a patient with leukemia. 2 Media and public response to this article made Quill a well-respected spokesperson for the “ethics of relieving suffering.” In his opinion, law’s traditional concerns about how death occurs, expressed in criminal laws prohibiting assisting anyone’s death, are archaic. This view eventually led Quill to become the lead plaintiff in Vacco v. Quill, the unsuccessful attempt to have New York’s statute prohibiting assisting suicide declared unconstitutional. 3

The physician-led reform movement has a particular view of self-killing: When appropriately regulated, and aided by a licensed physician, suicide is a medical blessing. Self-inflicted death thus loses its question

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