Bioethics Blogs

Aid-in-Dying Laws and the Physician’s Duty to Inform

Guest Post: Mara Buchbinder

Paper: Aid-in-dying laws and the physician’s duty to inform

Why do so many people assume that any clinical communication about aid-in-dying (AID, also known as assisted suicide), where it is legal, ought to be patient-initiated? Physician participants in my ongoing study tend to assume that physicians should wait for patients to initiate discussions of AID. The clinical ethics literature on communication about AID has reinforced this expectation by focusing on how to respond to patient requests. Consequently, bioethics has largely remained silent on whether there is a professional duty to inform terminally ill patients about AID laws and their clinical and legal requirements.

As a medical anthropologist, I pay attention to such gaps in professional discourse, as they often indicate ideas that are so taken for granted that they escape formal expression. In this case, bioethics’ silence on professional obligations to inform patients about AID suggests to me that initiating such a discussion is widely viewed as dangerous. But why? My recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics began with this puzzling question.

In the United States, where my research is based, in addition to many other Western societies, there is a pervasive cultural stigma against talking about death, as described in the Institute of Medicine’s 2014 Report on Dying in America. Yet there is something bigger at stake here for physicians, who may be more accustomed than most people to talking about death and dying: the idea that mentioning the possibility of hastening one’s death can be deeply injurious to the patient and the patient-provider relationship.

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.