Emotional and Psychological Effects of Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia on Participating Physicians

By Stevens, Kenneth R., Jr. | Issues in Law & Medicine, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Emotional and Psychological Effects of Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia on Participating Physicians


Stevens, Kenneth R., Jr., Issues in Law & Medicine


Abstract: This is a review and evaluation of medical and public literature regarding the reported emotional and psychological effects of participation in physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia on the involved physicians.

Materials and Methods: Articles in medical journals, legislative investigations and the public press were obtained and reviewed to determine what has been reported regarding the effects on physicians who have been personally involved in PAS and euthanasia.

Results and Discussion: The physician is centrally involved in PAS and euthanasia, and the emotional and psychological effects on the participating physician can be substantial. The shift away from the fundamental values of medicine to heal and promote human wholeness can have significant effects on many participating physicians. Doctors describe being profoundly adversely affected, being shocked by the suddenness of the death, being caught up in the patient's drive for assisted suicide, having a sense of powerlessness, and feeling isolated. There is evidence of pressure on and intimidation of doctors by some patients to assist in suicide. The effect of countertransference in the doctor-patient relationship may influence physician involvement in PAS and euthanasia. Conclusion: Many doctors who have participated in euthanasia and/or PAS are adversely affected emotionally and psychologically by their experiences.

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The report by The New York State Task Force on Life and the Law stated: "Many physicians and others who oppose assisted suicide and euthanasia believe that the practices undermine the integrity of medicine and the patient-physician relationship. Medicine is devoted to healing and the promotion of human wholeness; to use medical techniques in order to achieve death violates its fundamental values. Even in the absence of widespread abuse, some argue that allowing physicians to act as 'beneficent executioners' would undermine patients' trust, and change the way that both the public and physicians view medicine." (1)

The counter-argument has been expressed by Margaret Battin and Timothy Quill, editors of a book favoring legalization of PAS. These PAS advocates have stated that there is no evidence that PAS "legalization would corrupt physicians and thus undermine the integrity of the medical profession," and that "there is substantial evidence to the contrary." (2)

Purpose

When new treatments or procedures in medicine are developed, they are scrutinized to determine if there are adverse or harmful effects associated with them. In the same way, physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia deserve to be evaluated to determine if they have adverse or harmful effects. Instead of focusing on the involved patients, this investigation focuses on the reported effects on the doctors who are involved in assisted suicide and euthanasia.

This investigation's focus is to determine what has been reported regarding the following questions:

* What have been the emotional and psychological effects of participation in PAS and euthanasia on the involved doctors?

* What have they expressed to others regarding their experiences?

* Are physicians being pressured, intimidated or psychologically influenced to assist in suicide or perform euthanasia?

* What has happened to doctors who have written prescriptions? Have they continued to be involved with assisted suicide with other patients after the experience with the first patient or have they stopped their involvement?

Materials and Methods

Since the passage of Oregon's assisted suicide law in 1994, the author has gathered and archived articles from medical journals, legislative investigations, and the public press regarding assisted suicide and euthanasia. This collection of articles numbers into the thousands, including dozens of books on the subject. Other articles were identified and obtained using PubMed and the following search words: "euthanasia, assisted suicide, physicians, responses, psychological, emotional.

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