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Sad to see doctors group rethinking end-of-life stance

As a physician, ethicist, and member of the Massachusetts Medical Society, I was disappointed to learn that “physician-assisted suicide,” euphemistically called “medical aid in dying,” is again roiling the medical waters (“Physicians debate end-of-life option,” Page A1, Jan. 3). The medical society spoke clearly on this in 2012, when it opposed the so-called “death with dignity” ballot initiative. Dr. Barbara Rockett, former president of the group, observed then that helping patients end their lives directly conflicts with the Hippocratic Oath, which states, “I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel.”

To be clear: Mentally competent people with a terminal illness have the right, enshrined in US case law, to decline futile (“heroic”) measures that merely prolong the dying process. Furthermore, such individuals are at liberty to end their own lives — for example, by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking. Contrary to much disinformation, this approach is recognized as a humane and ethical option in many hospice settings. Palliative sedation, or the use of medications to induce decreased awareness, in order to relieve otherwise intractable suffering, is also recognized as an ethically acceptable last resort for terminally ill patients.

These options do not involve physicians helping their patients kill themselves. Indeed, providing a dying patient with a lethal prescription is only cosmetically different than handing the patient a loaded gun. Comforting euphemisms such as “medical aid in dying” cannot obscure this reality.


Dr. Ronald W. Pies, Lexington

The writer is a psychiatrist and medical ethicist.