College of Law > Academics > Centers, Institutes & Initiatives > Mary and Michael Jaharis Health Law Institute > e-Pulse Blog > physician assisted dying

Physician-Assisted Dying

In 2014 Brittany Maynard became a household name when she left California and moved to Oregon to take advantage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. Ms. Maynard had brain cancer and was given less than six months to live. Instead of allowing her disease to consume her, she made the decision to end her life on her own terms.

Oregon has had legislation in favor of physician-assisted death since 1997. Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act gives physicians the ability to prescribe lethal drugs to individuals with less than six months to live. The individuals must be “of sound mind” when the decision is made and wait fifteen days, through a “cooling off” period, before any procedure is started.  Patients must self-administer the drugs to avoid voluntary euthanasia, which is defined as the act of assisting someone with their death in order to end their suffering. Voluntary euthanasia is not allowed in any U.S. State, unlike physician-assisted death.

Oregon is not the only U.S. state that allows terminally ill individuals to determine how and when they die. Both Washington and Vermont have legalized physician-assisted dying through state law since 2009 and 2013 respectively. The laws in these states have similar requirements to the law in Oregon. Montana County and Bernalillo County in New Mexico also have laws governing physician-assisted death. The court rulings mandating these laws are from 2009 and 2014 respectively. At the time of this article’s writing, several states in the country currently have “Death with Dignity” type legislation pending before state legislators.

The U.S. is not alone in debating the controversial topic of physician-assisted death.  Earlier this year, The Economist commissioned IPSOS, a market research company, to conduct research in fifteen countries regarding each country’s view on the subject. Out of the fifteen countries surveyed, only Russia and Poland did not have a majority vote in favor of either self-administered or physician-administered assistance in dying. The two countries with the least restrictive legislation in favor of physician-assisted dying are the Netherlands and Belgium. The Netherlands’ legislation allows for physicians to assist individuals who experience “unbearable suffering with no prospect of improvement,” and terminally ill children over the age of twelve with parental consent, to peacefully end their life. Belgium’s legislation is viewed as the most accommodating for sick individuals wishing to humanely end their life. Last year the country eliminated all age restrictions, however children may only receive life-ending assistance if they are near-death or in great pain.

Even though approval for physician-assisted dying is seemingly growing not just in the U.S., but globally as well, there are still many arguments against legalization of the practice. Proponents acknowledge the value of human autonomy and the importance of an individual being able to make decisions regarding their life for themselves. Opponents, on the other hand, recognize the significance of a person making their own decisions regarding their care, they also believe that human autonomy is not absolute. In a position paper published by The American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, the author writes, “just as society can direct that no one has the right to sell himself or herself into slavery, so too can society direct that no one has a right to assistance with suicide.” Many believe that by allowing a person to ultimately choose when they die, and having a physician assist in that choice, the relationship between physician and patient is tarnished. The paper goes on to argue the goal of a physician should be to make a patient as comfortable as possible during their last living moments and to empathize with the patient, not to administer a life ending procedure.

Another argument against legalization of physician-assisted death is a concern seen time and time again within healthcare, centered on the potential of misuse and abuse on behalf of the physicians in states that have legalized assistance with dying. Although the arguments are completely valid and well placed, legislation governing physician-assisted death is heavily regulated and many requirements must be met before a physician is able to administer the lethal dose of drugs that will be utilized by the patient to ultimately end their life.

Physician-assisted death has been around much longer than society would like to acknowledge. It is only within the last twenty years that there has been legislation in the U.S. governing a practice that has been prevalent in hospitals and within hospices for decades. The act of making a patient “more comfortable” during their last moments alive always has the potential of terminating their life. The ultimate decision of whether or not physician-assisted death is legalized lies with each individual state, however, regardless of whether or not the state’s legislators are proponents or opponents of legalization, in a society that values a person’s dignity and comfort at the end of their life, these practices will continue to exist. 

Originally from South Jersey, Tamalyn attended Loyola University Chicago where she received a B.A. in Political Science and a B.S. in Criminal Justice & Criminology. A Health Law Fellow and current 2L from DePaul University College of Law, she has a passion for Health Law Policy and Healthcare Compliance.