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The Elderly, Terminally Sick and Assisted Suicide

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Last month, the daughter of a 93 year old father, who was dying and in extreme pain and saw no reason to prolong the agony, apparently carried out his wishes that he be helped commit suicide by over dosing on morphine. This occurred in Philadelphia where she was arrested and charged with a felony. Her lawyers are arguing that the overdose of his medication was an accident and not deliberate. However, the ethical question here is not whether she deliberately or accidentally administered the medication but whether a terminal patient should be permitted to either commit suicide or have a loved one assist in that act if they are not able? Should assisted suicide in a terminal patient be legalized?

There are strong arguments for and against legalizing assisted suicide. Against it is the opinion that society has a moral duty to protect and to preserve all life. To allow people to assist others in destroying their lives violates a fundamental duty we have to respect human life. A society committed to preserving and protecting life should not permit people to destroy it. In addition, those who oppose assisted suicide point out that family members might urge the terminal patient to commit suicide because they cannot tolerate the slow death of a loved one or who just want to get them out of the way to suit there own needs. In other words, legalizing assisted suicide could threaten the safety of innocent people. Finally, it is argued that permitting assisted suicide could violate the rights of others. Doctors, nurses and loved ones might find themselves pressured or forced to cooperate in a patient’s suicide. In order to satisfy the desires of a patient wanting to die, it’s unjust to demand that others go against their own deeply held convictions.

Those who favor assisted suicide have a powerful argument of their own. They appeal to our capacity for compassion and an obligation to support individual choice and self determination. In other words, if a person is of sound mind, can no longer tolerate their suffering and pain and choose suicide, they should be allowed to have their wishes carried out. Further, it is important to respect the dignity and will of terminal patients who make a sane decision of how they want to die.

What is your opinion about this deeply important issue? Your comments are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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