The Many Faces of Physician-Assisted Suicide

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physician-assisted suicide, ethics, aging, mental health

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Physician-assisted suicide is a complex and controversial issue that touches on standards of medical practice, the balance between individual rights and the rights of the state, and our fears of death and pain. Supporters of assisted suicide propose it as an alternative to a lingering, highly technological death, and define it as the act of a physician who prescribes a lethal dose of a medication for a terminally ill patient, with the knowledge that the patient intends to commit suicide. The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld prohibitions against assisting in a suicide, but left open the possibility that in certain specific cases assisted suicide might be constitutionally protected. The Supreme Court's refusal to extend constitutional protection to assisted suicide was done in part to insure that public debate and legislative fact-finding would continue. As stated in Justice Rehnquist's majority opinion, “...Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality and practicality of physician-assisted suicide” (Washington v. Glucksberg, 96-110—Opinion, 1997, p. 26). As researchers, policy makers, and health care providers, we have an obligation to insure that political debate and empirical research are continuing and productive, and that this issue becomes more than just an occasion to play out ideological or personal differences.

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Journal of Aging and Identity, v. 3, issue 1, p. 35-48