Euthanasia is a word coined from Greek in the 17th century to refer to an easy, painless, happy death. In modern times, however, it has come to mean a physician's causing a patient's death by injection of a lethal dose of medication. In physician-assisted suicide, the physician prescribes the lethal dose, knowing the patient intends to end their life.
Giving medicine to relieve suffering, even if it risks or causes death, is not assisted suicide or euthanasia; nor is withdrawing treatments that only prolong a painful dying process. Like the general public, many in the medical profession are not clear about these distinctions. Terms like assisted death or death with dignity blur these distinctions, implying that a special law is necessary to make such practices legal--in most countries they already are.
Compassion for suffering patients and respect for patient autonomy serve as the basis for the strongest arguments in favor of legalizing physician-assisted suicide. Compassion, however, is no guarantee against doing harm. A physician who does not know how to relieve a patient's suffering may compassionately, but inappropriately, agree to end the patient's life.
Patient autonomy is an illusion when physicians are not trained to assess and treat patient suffering. The choice for patients then becomes continued agony or a hastened death. Most physicians do not have such training. We have only recently recognized the need to train general physicians in palliative care, training that teaches them how to relieve the suffering of patients with serious, life-threatening illnesses. Studies show that the less physicians know about palliative care, the more they favor assisted suicide or euthanasia; the more they know, the less they favor it.
What happens to autonomy and compassion when assisted suicide and euthanasia are legally practiced? The Netherlands, the only country in which assisted suicide and euthanasia have had legal sanction for two decades, provides the best laboratory to help us evaluate what they mean in actuality. The Dutch experience served as a stimulus for an assisted-suicide law in Oregon--the one U.S. state to sanction it.
I was one of a few foreignresearchers who had the opportunity to extensively study the situation in the Netherlands, discuss specific cases with leading Dutch practitioners and interview Dutch government-sponsored euthanasia researchers about their work. We all independently concluded that guidelines established by the Dutch for the practice of assisted suicide and euthanasia were consistently violated and could not be enforced. In the guidelines, a competent patient who has unrelievable suffering makes a voluntary request to a physician. The physician, before going forward, must consult with another physician and must report the case to the authorities.
Concern over charges of abuse led the Dutch government to undertake studies of the practice in 1990, 1995 and in 2001 in which physicians' anonymity was protected and they were given immunity for anything they revealed. Violations of the guidelines then became evident. Half of Dutch doctors feel free to suggest euthanasia to their patients, which compromises the voluntariness of the process. Fifty percent of cases were not reported, which made regulation impossible. The most alarming concern has been the documentation of several thousand cases a year in which patients who have not given their consent have their lives ended by physicians. A quarter of physicians stated that they "terminated the lives of patients without an explicit request" from the patient. Another third of the physicians could conceive of doing so.