ISSUE GUIDE: Right to Die


Right to Die


The process of dying has become far more complicated than it once was.

A century ago, most people died at home of illnesses that medicine could do little to defeat. Today, a hospital, nursing home or hospice is a far more likely setting, but the place of death is not the only thing that has changed. Technology has created choices for patients and their families - choices that raise basic questions about human dignity and what constitutes a "good death."

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Recognize the right to die with dignity, with a physician's assistance
Focus on giving comfort and recognizing the patient's preferences
Reaffirm the commitment to preserve life
While life must be protected, we must also permit people to have a humane death. Individuals have a right to determine the time and circumstances of their death. When people are near death and in unbearable pain or anguish, they should be free to seek medical assistance in ending their lives. It has long been recognized that patients have a right to refuse life-support technology, or to have it withdrawn when efforts to extend life are futile. By the same token, individuals should be permitted to seek a physician's assistance in dying when they choose to do so.
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The debate over physician-assisted suicide has arisen largely because health care professionals routinely overlook patients' preferences, or fail to provide palliative care. Hospital patients often die in great pain, despite the fact that medications are available to ease their suffering. As physicians focus on taking every possible medical measure to keep patients alive, they often fail to relieve the pain and depression patients experience. Recognizing the patient's right to control the treatment they receive is a far better solution than encouraging physicians to supervise suicides.
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By condemning the practice of physician-assisted suicide, and reiterating why it must remain illegal, we affirm the unconditional value of human life. Society as a whole must reaffirm the commitment to preserve life whenever possible. Except when patients explicitly decline further treatment, physicians must make every effort to sustain life. Any compromise in the commitment of medical professionals to protect and extend life would undermine the public's faith in the medical profession.
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