Recently, the so-called “Georgia Death with Dignity Act” (Senate Bill 291) was introduced to the state Senate. The bill includes provisions that would make killing oneself — purportedly, a way to ease a dying person’s pain — accessible to patients and legal for physicians.
There is no doubt that the pain — including the fear of pain — of a terminal illness is difficult to endure. Those arguing in favor of the choice to take one’s own life do so from the perspective of compassion and radical individual autonomy.
But, cannot compassion also be offered in so many other ways than by allowing one to kill oneself? Compassion is offered from a family’s outflowing of personal love, enduring care, and with genuine kindness and sympathy; these can be offered in the form of personal presence at the bedside where loved ones caring for the patient offer such meaningful actions as talking and recalling beautiful memories of times gone by, singing favorite songs and hymns, providing individual personal hygiene, speaking prayers of grace and blessing, and also by reading from books, prose or scriptural passages. What a beautiful and caring way of accompanying someone during the final days, hours or minutes of life.
Radical individual autonomy can be a dangerous concept — especially when personal choices such as the volitional causation of death abut against a family’s desire to provide care and compassion. The “autonomy” provided by Senate Bill 291 speaks of doctors not being subject to criminal prosecution, the personal physician allowing the process, a second physician determining the patient’s mental capacity, two members of the family providing signatures requesting the death-causing drugs, and a caveat that those with financial interests cannot pressure the patient into making the decision. Is it a realistic possibility that all of these provisions be carried out and done properly, personally and professionally near the end of a loved-one’s life?
Many patients with a terminal illness fear pain, death, and the dying process. The medical profession has excellent pain medications, and doctors can provide this high-quality care with competence and professionalism. Death — on this earth — is a personal unknown until it happens, and the dying process can be frightening. However our families and society can provide compassionate care and support through such institutions as hospice, professional counselors, and religious care and companionship.
The proper and professional doctor-patient relationship must not be violated. Doctors should not be allowed to volitionally kill their patients. The patient who asks to be killed — demanding the doctor’s participation — turns this professional medical relationship upside down. The role of the doctor is to affirm life, to relieve suffering and to give compassionate competent care as long as the patient is alive.
Ferdinand Yates, MD