04 December 2008

Do no harm

With the success of I-1000 on the Washington state ballot, two states have now legalized assisted suicide, but both of those states recognize doctor assisted suicide. In these systems a doctor either prescribes a lethal dose of medication, or helps to administer the medication. This fact chills me almost more than the whole concept of euthanasia and assisted suicide in general, because I believe it irreparably damages the doctor's relationship with their patients.

The Hippocratic Oath, which pre-dates the birth of Christ, tells doctors and physicians to "do no harm." The oath says "I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect." So, any doctor who prescribes assisted suicide is violating that oath, or, as is more common, they are simply not taking the oath in the first place. But this worries me, because it seems we are taking a step back to the dark ages; the pre-Hippocrates times. Hippocrates created the oath in recognition of the fact that going to a doctor was dangerous business- you had to hope you paid the doctor more to heal you than you enemy paid him to kill you. Hippocrates didn't like this- he thought people should be free to seek treatment and know that the physician ministering to them would do everything he could to help them. Thus, the Hippocratic Oath- an oath taken by doctors for over 2000 years was born. It was created so people could feel safe visiting a doctor.

Physician assisted suicide threatens this, because you don't know that your doctor will actually work in your best interest. You don't know that he or she won't give you a deadly drug, or make subtle and not so subtle suggestions that you take it. You don't know that your doctor won't have spoken to your children or caregivers and have been convinced by them that you are "better off dead." If doctors continue to administer lethal prescriptions, patients cannot trust their doctors.

For this reason, it is so important that everyone talk with their doctors; just like you would a lawyer. Find out where they stand on palliative care and assisted suicide, or other medical ethical questions, and make sure they know you position as well. Communication is key, and if your doctor doesn't have the same pro-life values as you do, it is time to find another doctor. Another thing you should ask is if they took the Hippocratic Oath; increasingly medical schools are not requiring grads to take the Oath.

It's a scary world when we can't trust the people who are supposed to heal us to actually do no harm.

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