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The Physician’s Imprimatur

In a previous blog response about physician-assisted suicide (PAS), Mark McQuain asked, “Why involve physicians at all?” That question gets too little attention.

There are some easily discernible (and perhaps expressed) reasons why physicians are chosen to be the agents of assisting suicide. First, they have access to pain- or consciousness-relieving pharmacologic measures that also have the (in this case) desirable effect of stopping breathing when given in high enough doses. Second, by their professional ethic, physicians should approach patients with compassion, which, as mentioned previously, is the catchword that is quite deliberately attached to the act of assisting suicide by those who promote it.

But as Dr. McQuain suggests, access to painless methods for killing need not be restricted by to physicians, just as compassion is not; there is no law of physics that prevents others from assuming this role. To limit the methods and the responsibility to physicians is a willful act by society.

This leaves one main reason for committing the responsibility of assisting suicide to physicians: involvement of physicians gives it a much-desired moral certification, or imprimatur. Here is the logic, unspoken as it is:

  • Physicians have moral standing;
  • If physicians are involved,
  • Then the act has moral basis

But this gets it backwards. Physicians have moral standing based on what they do and what they refrain from doing. Edmund Pellegrino wrote often of the “intrinsic morality” of medicine which depended on the nature of the physician-patient relationship. Such morality stems as much from what is not done as from what is done.

We need not agree upon any particular bioethical issue to realize the significance of the tactic, in how it can could be used by proponents of various acts to enlist, and yes, even pressure or legally mandate, the involvement of physicians. Or, for that matter, the involvement other people whose life work is viewed by society as having moral standing.

If PAS were to be legal across the US, would physicians buy into the idea that it is consistent with the underlying ethic, or intrinsic morality, or their practice? I predict that most would not. Recall the vision of abortion (when first made legal by judicial decree) being done by the patient’s family physician, which presumed a longstanding benevolent and wise relationship. This of course failed to happen, and abortions have since become centered in facilities where patient and doctor remain, by no accident, strangers. Most physicians do not want to be associated with abortions ( and none of the many family physicians I’ve met) because they know that there is a quality to the act that impacts them; it would not be benign simply because they did it. And it is not consistent with the underlying moral and ethical basis for their medical practice.

So it will be with physician-assisted suicide. The strategic involvement of physicians will most certainly mean that some will be involved. But most who could be involved will decline, knowing, or at least sensing, the inverted logic behind how physicians got pulled into the affair to begin with.

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