A Call to Legalize Physician Assistance in Dying for the Terminally Ill

Executive Summary

Few issues in bioethics have received as much sustained attention as the question of whether the terminally ill should have the right to hasten their deaths through prescribed medication, a practice known as assisted suicide or assistance in dying. This question has been debated in Congress, state legislatures, the Supreme Court, in books and scholarly articles, and in the popular press. The Center for Inquiry believes the time is appropriate to re-examine this issue, in part because Oregon has now had in effect for a decade a statute that permits physician assistance in dying under certain circumstances. Some who oppose legalization of the practice have predicted that legalization would result in a parade of horribles: thousands being rushed to a premature death, many patients being coerced into requesting assisted dying, a decline in the quality of health care for the terminally ill, and the beginning of a slippery slope to legalizing assisted suicide on demand. Our position paper carefully examines Oregon’s experience and concludes that none of the dire predictions has proven to be accurate. Moreover, if proper safeguards are in place, there is no reason to believe that legalization will result in unacceptable consequences.

CFI’s position paper also examines perhaps the most well-known argument against legalization, namely that it will violate the “sanctity of life.” However, as demonstrated in the paper, it is inconsistent to oppose physician assistance in dying based on the “sanctity of life” while also permitting withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, which is legal throughout the United States.

Terminally ill patients deserve the right to spend their last days at peace rather than in anxiety and torment. CFI calls upon other states to legalize physician assistance in dying through legislation similar to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.

CFI’s position paper on assistance in dying was authored by Ronald A. Lindsay, J.D., Ph.D. Dr. Lindsay is Vice President and General Counsel for CFI. He is an honors graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and received his Ph.D. in bioethics from Georgetown University. He has written other articles on assistance in dying and was co-author of an amicus brief submitted on behalf of prominent bioethicists and scholars in Gonzales v. Oregon, the Supreme Court case that ruled the Attorney General could not prohibit the prescription of barbiturates by physicians pursuant to the ODWDA.