I am very glad the AMA is studying the issue of aid in dying. Opponents to the legalization of aid in dying put quotes around the term, apparently to indicate that it is a euphemism for what they believe is physician-assisted suicide. But aid in dying is not suicide.
On 9/11 witnesses saw a number of people trapped in the World Trade Center intentionally jump to their deaths. None of those deaths were ruled suicides by the medical examiner. The death certificates for the jumpers list the cause of death as homicide.
Similarly, in the states in which aid in dying is legal, the death certificates do not list “suicide” as the cause of death; instead, they list the underlying terminal disease as the cause. Just as the 9/11 jumpers chose death by falling over death by burning, those terminally ill people fortunate enough to live in an aid in dying state can choose a peaceful, quick death at the time and place of their choosing over a drawn-out, miserable death that may end alone, intubated in an ICU rather than at home with loved ones present.
Doctors have traditionally been associated with saving lives and the Hippocratic oath rejects doing harm. However, doctors have also been traditionally associated with preventing suffering; and giving a mentally competent, terminally ill patient a prescription to end his or her life does not seem like “doing harm” to me. I see it as an act of compassion supporting a patient’s right to choose how he or she wants to die. The patient is not choosing whether or not to die; that is a given for the terminally ill. The patient is choosing how to die, just as the jumpers did on 9/11.
The author is executive director for Life Choices New York.