Culture & Ethics
The Worst MDs Can Become Death Prescribers
The New York Times is a promotion juggernaut for assisted suicide and euthanasia. Recently, it had a magazine-length, front-page story swooning over a euthanasia party in Canada.
The was followed by a major opinion section article by an Oakland, California, doctor supporting assisted suicide — but hand-wringing about how it should be done carefully. First, author Jessica Nutik Zitter admits she might have assisted the suicide of a patient whose motive for wanting to die now was resentment and a feeling of abandonment by his sister. From “Should I Help My Patients Die?“:
His despair had given way to rage. “Let’s just end this,” he said. “I’m fed up with my lousy life.” He really didn’t care, he added, that his sister opposed his decision. His request appeared to stem from a deep family wound, not his terminal illness…
At our second meeting, with more trust established, he issued a sob, almost a keening. He felt terrified and powerless, he said. He didn’t want to live this way anymore. I understood. I could imagine my own distress in his condition — being shuttled like a bag of bones between the nursing home and the hospital. It was his legal right to request this intervention from me. But given how uncomfortable I was feeling, was it my right to say no?
It seems to me it was her duty to say no — just as she would if the patient didn’t have a terminal illness.
Indeed, as a palliative care doctor, she should declare her practice an assisted-suicide-free zone, ensuring there is never any public confusion between pain and symptom control. She would thus avoid intentionally participating in suicide.
Also notice the man’s intent to commit suicide was not due to physical suffering caused by the disease. Indeed, actual suffering — much less suffering that can’t be alleviated — isn’t required by assisted suicide laws. One just needs the terminal diagnosis — sometimes mistaken — to qualify for the lethal pills. Actual suffering has nothing to do with it.
This was Zitter’s first time being asked to assist in a suicide, and she was troubled. (Good for her. She should have been.) So she made a deal with the patient to go on four weeks of anti-depressants. He subsequently changed his mind and died naturally three months later.
But note: She could have lethally prescribed. Some doctors — particularly those ideologically predisposed to assisted suicide — would have done so.
And the patient might not have lived long enough to change his mind. Even Zitter implies she would have cooperated — despite her knowledge of his reasons — had he made another request in four weeks after taking the anti-depressants.
I know some will choose to miss the point and say this story shows the law working because the man didn’t kill himself. But there will be others who will kill themselves before sufficient time passes to change their minds — and we will never know who they are because they will be dead. Indeed, I have met several people who would have killed themselves if assisted suicide were legal but were so glad it wasn’t because they eventually changed their minds.
But note, Zitter then points to Lonny Shavelson as the epitome of committed death doctors that society should trust to do assisted suicide right. She describes Shavelson as an emergency room and primary care doctor. That overstates his credentials. For most of his medical career, Shavelson was a part-time, contract ER physician. He also did some health clinic work for poor immigrants.
But he is not a board certified specialist in providing ongoing care for cancer patients, kidney disease patients, diabetics, or other serious conditions. In fact, until California legalized assisted suicide, he was mostly out of medicine, pursuing a career as a photo journalist and author. He certainly isn’t a specialist in caring for dying patients. He’s no hospice doctor.
When assisted suicide was legalized, he started “practicing medicine” again — as a death doctor, willing to help make people dead for $2000.
Moreover, he has a deep ideological commitment to assisted suicide. How deep? He once watched a Hemlock Society leader murder a stroke victim who had asked to die but changed his mind. She held a plastic bag over his head. From page 92 of Shavelson’s book, A Chosen Death:
His good hand flew up to tear off the plastic bag. Sarah’s hand caught Gene’s wrist and held it. His body thrust upwards.
She pulled his arm away and lay across Gene’s shoulders. Sarah rocked back and forth, pinning him down, her fingers twisting the bag to seal it tight at his neck as she repeated, “the light, Gene, go toward the light.” Gene’s body pushed against Sarah’s. Then he stopped moving.
And how did Shavelson react? Did he save the man? Did he call 911? Did he turn “Sarah” over to the authorities? No. He did nothing:
“Stop, Sarah” raced through my mind. For whose sake, I thought — Gene’s, so intent on killing himself? The weight of unanswered questions kept me glued to my corner.
Was this a suicide, Gene’s right finally to succeed and die? Or was this a needless death encouraged by Sarah’s desire to act?
Had Gene’s decision to have me there, to tell me his story, given me the right to stop what was happening — or, equally powerful, the responsibility not to interfere? Or was I obliged by my very presence as a fellow human being, to jump up and stop the craziness? Was it craziness?
And this part-time doctor — who watched passively as a helpless disabled man was asphyxiated against his will — is extolled by a physician in the New York Times as an ideal assisted suicide doctor!
Come to think about it, maybe there is something appropriate about that. The worst licensed doctors in the country are free to become assisted suicide doctors, unspecialized in proper patient care, untrained in palliation, unqualified to treat patients with particular diseases, but because of their medical license, able to declare patients terminally ill and write prescriptions to help kill them.
Assisted suicide corrupts everything it touches — especially the profession of medicine.
Photo credit: Tibor Kádek (Kandy Talbot) (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.
Cross-posted at The Corner.