Bioethics Blogs

The Issue of Physician Motive in Physician-Assisted Suicide

Two responses to my June 8th post provide useful points of departure for further discussion about physician-assisted suicide (PAS). The first respondent argued that the Hippocratic Oath states that physicians should not give a “poison,” as opposed to stating that they should not give a “deadly drug.” The respondent’s claim was that inherent in the term “poison” was malintent, which would make the causation of death an act murder and not PAS, which could be an act of compassion.

I believe that in fact “deadly drug” is the more accurate translation of the original Greek. Regardless, I would ask how the definition of the word “poison” differs substantively, in either a linguistic or ethical perspective, from the term “deadly drug.” Even if the respondent’s claim were correct, it would be interesting to see how one would argue that Hippocrates would disapprove of a physician giving a “poison” while not disapproving of giving a “drug that causes death.”

It is useful to cast light on the attempt to use terminology to give a deed a hue of credibility by taking advantage of connotations. What seems to be happening in the debate over PAS is that the deed is cast as morally permissible if the motive of the physician is one of compassion. Therefore, the language supporting PAS is molded to convey that sense.

In fact, the Oath does not take physician motive into account. This is an important distinction, and I believe that this omission by Hippocrates was deliberate. He would have known that regardless of claims of PAS proponents, there is no possible way to ascertain or guarantee physician motive.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.