Bioethics Blogs

Observations from a recent discussion of doctor-assisted suicide

Early this past June, the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) included an ethics session featuring a point-counterpoint discussion, with audience Q+A, of “physician aid in dying,” or, as I think more accurate, “physician-assisted suicide (PAS).”  Discussants were Dr. Timothy Quill, a palliative care specialist who is a past plaintiff in court cases seeking legal approval of PAS, and Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, an oncologist who is an outspoken opponent of PAS.   Both have written extensively on the subject.

I missed the session but only now was able to review it on ASCO’s “Virtual Meeting,” available only to subscribers.  I cannot summarize it fully but will just relay some observations from my listening.  I will say that the session lived up to its billing as a “thoughtful discussion,” one that demonstrates just how far our thinking has come (wandered?) on this matter.

I think it important to say that, although I consider Dr. Quill an adversary, his presentation clearly demonstrated concern for his patients.  Some of his noteworthy points:

  • ·       Although he calls PAS a “last resort,” he includes it in the umbrella of palliative care measures, and claims that the same issues of potential harms arise with all of them.  I’m not so sure; one can heavily sedate someone, not intending to kill him but accepting that risk (by the rule of “double effect”), and that is different from purposely helping that person kill himself.
  • ·       He emphasized that more patients ask about PAS than actually go through with it.  But he showed data from Washington state in which the numbers of the two were nearly identical.

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.