Assisted Suicide and Ethics

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Doctors are tasked with saving lives, and rendering medical assistance is part of the oath that doctors abide by. What happens when society reaches an ethical conundrum regarding so-called “death with dignity,” and a doctor is responsible to help? This topic has been gaining traction in recent years, leading to questions about the conflict between assisted suicide and ethics.

What is Physician-Assisted Suicide?

Prior to 1996 in the United States, a number of terms were used to describe the concept now called death with dignity. Physician-assisted suicide, physician aid-in-dying, and other terms were used to describe a process in which an individual of sound mind seeks the assistance of a doctor in ending their own life. Many people make this choice in an effort to take back control of their life and body from a disease or diagnosis that is terminal.

For example, rather than waste away from an incurable form of cancer or an inoperable brain tumor, some patients choose to take a lethal dose of a medication to control the time and manner in which they die. It is done to maintain their dignity as a human being, reduce the burden on their family, and to avoid undue suffering on their behalf. What impact does this have on pharmacists though?

Ethics and Pharmacology

All medical professionals have a responsibility in their role, not only to patients but to each other. As stated by ASHP.org, “the basic tenet of the profession is to provide care and affirm life. The pharmacy profession was founded on a tradition of patient trust. Pharmacists should serve as advocates for the patient throughout the continuum of care.”

In short, pharmacists and those involved in pharmacology are part of a greater healthcare team devoted to preserving life, but also faced with the task of ensuring that respect for individual patients of sound mind is upheld during the course of care.

Pharmacists and “Death with Dignity”

Pharmacists find themselves firmly entrenched between the metaphorical rock and a hard place when it comes to cases of death with dignity. Assuming a pharmacist knows the purpose for the lethal dose of a particular medication that is being dispensed, they face the ethical and moral tough choice of actually dispensing that requested dose. In some cases, pharmacists may not know exactly why a lethal dose of a particular medication is requested, relieving them of the ethical or moral problem.

In any case, pharmacists have a responsibility to learn as much as they can about the individual to whom that medication will be given. As the National Institute of Health notes, “pharmaceutical care requires that the pharmacist not only understands the medications, but also the individual patient and the complexities of their lives and suffering.”

Rise in “Death with Dignity” Cases

Though many cases have captivated towns and regions over the years, it was the case of Brittany Maynard that garnered national headlines in November 2014. Suffering from a terminal case of brain cancer, the California resident left her state for the confines of Oregon to opt for death over a slow degradation of her life.

Just 29 years old, Maynard moved to Oregon (where a Death with Dignity Act was passed in 1996) to receive a lethal dose of medication to end her suffering. This action was illegal in her home state of California, but has pushed the conversation back into the national limelight, and brought attention to the ethical and moral dilemma facing pharmacists as well as others in the healthcare field.

Pharmacists and other medical professionals need to strike a balance between their own ethical viewpoint and the wishes of their patient. As “death with dignity” becomes a more mainstream issue, it seems the debate is not over yet.

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