24
The Morality of
Physician-Assisted Suicide

Robert F. Weir

In March 1989, twelve physicians published an article on the provision of care to hopelessly ill patients. Unfortunately, many of the substantive points in that article received insufficient attention from readers because the authors' call for appropriate, continually adjusted care for terminally ill patients was overshadowed by a portion of the document in which ten of the authors agreed that "it is not immoral for a physician to assist in the rational suicide of a terminally ill person." 1

In June 1990, Jack Kevorkian, a retired pathologist in Michigan, gained international media attention by enabling Janet Adkins, a woman in the early stage of Alzheimer's disease, to terminate her life with the help of his "suicide machine." 2 The features of the case were so unusual that physicians, ethicists, and attorneys in health law who were interviewed by journalists were unanimous in judging this particular act of physician-assisted suicide deplorable. 3

In March 1991, Timothy Quill, an internist in New York, published a detailed account of the suicide of one of his patients identified only as "Diane," a patient with acute myelomonocytic leukemia who requested and received his assistance in killing herself with an overdose of barbiturates. 4 Given the features of this particular case, some of the professionals in medicine, ethics, and law interviewed by the media judged Dr. Quill's action to have been morally acceptable, even if against the law in New York. 5

The issue of physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is not limited to these well‐ publicized examples. The American Hospital Association estimates that many of the 6,000 daily deaths in the United States are orchestrated by patients, relatives, and physicians, although how many of these deaths are assisted suicides is

____________________
From Law, Medicine and Health Care 20 ( 1992): 116-26. Reprinted by the permission of the American Society of Law, Medicine, and Ethics and the author.

-247-

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