Monday, November 9, 2009

Assisted Suicide and Palliative Sedation

I was helping my sister in her office when she casually handed me a pamphlet for the ‘Exit’ file. It took me a moment to realize that I was in Switzerland, where assisted suicide was legal, and that people knew they could exit their lives under certain conditions. ‘Exit’ is otherwise known as the Association for the Right to Die with Dignity. The dying person must:

*be mentally competent

*have made repeated serious requests

*have an incurable illness

*have intolerable physical or psychological suffering

*have a terminal prognosis

Assisted suicide has been legal in Switzerland since 1940! There are clinics and doctors who assess the patients and provide the medication (usually barbiturates) to cause sleep and then death. Patients come to Switzerland from many countries for assisted suicide, as legal residency is not required. The Swiss government has been criticized for allowing ‘death tourism’, and is now considering stricter guidelines to prevent commercialization of the practice. Patients must be given time to consider their decision, and must freely declare their wish to die. They must have medical certificates from two independent doctors proving their capacity to make the decision, and the existence of a terminal illness. Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are the other European countries allowing assisted suicide. The Netherlands is the only country in the world that has legalized euthanasia - death by injection – in cases where the patient cannot swallow.

Oregon: Oregon passed a ‘Death with Dignity Act’ in 1994 , which legalized physician assisted suicide with certain restrictions. It was passed by 51.3% of voters; a repeal measure in 1997 was rejected by 60% of voters. The act was challenged by the Bush administration, but upheld by the US Supreme Court (6 to 3) in 2006. People who wish to use the law must:

*be 18 years old or older

*be a Oregon resident

*make 2 oral requests of their doctor, 15 days apart

*provide a written request signed in the presence of 2 witnesses, one of whom is not a relative

*have 2 doctors attest to his/her competency to make the decision

*have a psychological exam if needed

*be fully informed about comfort care, hospice and pain control

*know that s/he can rescind the request at any time

The physician need not be present when the dose is taken, but can be, so long as s/he does not administer the dose. Physicians and pharmacists are not required to take part in the program if they are opposed to it. Oregon has kept careful records of cases under their law – approximately 400 people had died by assisted suicide by 2008. Not everyone who was given the medication used it. Analysis of deaths under the law do not show evidence of abuse – in the sense of overuse by minorities, women, or the disabled.

Washington state: In November 2008 Washington passed a law similar to Oregon’s, by 58% of voters. A state judge in Montana has ruled that doctor assisted suicide is legal under the constitution, but the state is appealing that decision.

Palliative Sedation: Palliative care is comfort care to relieve suffering at the end of life, as is given so expertly by hospices. When suffering is too severe to be alleviated, sedation can be used, not purposefully to hasten death (although it will do so if food, water and other care is withheld), but to put the patient to sleep while the disease takes it course. In California, all doctors must take a course in pain control and palliative sedation, and some hospitals have allotted beds for this purpose.

Fear of death: Fears of intense suffering at the end of life affect most people, especially those with cancer and other debilitating diseases. Laws to allow assisted suicide or the practice of palliative sedation must be monitored extremely carefully to prevent abuse of patient choice and autonomy. That said, they represent – as I see it – an advance in the relief of suffering. It is said that Inuit elders go out on the ice to die alone in the cold. Most of us are not that brave, and may need help at the end of life.

Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH - past issues on this blog

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