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Tuesday, 26 May 2015 21:32

Dr. Eric Chevlen in the Sacramento Bee: Doctors who assist suicide abandon their patients

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Laws that legalize physician-assisted suicide do not empower patients; they empower doctors. Such a law is now being considered in the Legislature. Senate Bill 128 would protect physicians who commit such a shameful violation of their duty to their patients, even as it endangers those very patients.

It is no surprise that two organizations of my fellow oncologists – doctors who deal every day with the gritty reality of fatal disease – have contradicted the California Medical Association, the large doctors’ lobby that has declared its neutrality to the passage of the bill. Indifference – how very telling.

I urge Californians not to be indifferent, but to tell their legislators of their firm opposition to SB 128.

I have been an oncologist for more than 30 years. I have also been a cancer patient. I have treated hundreds of patients for depression complicated by thoughts of suicide. And I, too, have sought treatment when I developed that illness. Thus, I have had ample opportunity to consider death, suicide and assisted suicide from both sides of the stethoscope. Let me tell you what I’ve learned.

People with terminal illnesses do not seek suicide, assisted or otherwise, because of pain. Patients in pain seek pain control, not death. Fortunately, modern medicine can reduce pain to ordinary levels that we all have experienced. The terminally ill do not seek suicide, assisted or otherwise, because of the burden of treatment. Patients who find treatment burdensome rightly have the option of simply discontinuing treatment.

Rather, without exception, those patients who have asked me to hasten their death did so out of despair. They despaired of having lives of value, of being the object of the loving care of others. They mistook being dependent for being a burden, or mistook being a burden for being contemptible. They were sick and weak, and mistook uselessness for worthlessness. Despair is indeed the sickness unto death.

My job as their physician is to help them through this existential crisis, to help them recognize the intrinsic value that remains within them despite their advanced illness.

I remember one particularly challenging case. A middle-aged man with recurrent cancer and a few weeks to live, a petty criminal estranged from his family, asked me why God was still keeping him alive when all he wanted was to die. Such conversations demand bracing honesty. I told him that I really didn’t know, and suggested that it was his job to discover the reason. A few weeks later, shortly before his death, he told me that he had taken my counsel to heart, and had re-established rapport with his son. He thanked me for having refused his earlier request for assisted suicide, and tearfully told me that these had been the best weeks of his life.

A doctor whose response to a request for assisted suicide is a scribbled prescription for a lethal drug does his patient the terrible disservice of abandonment. It is a tacit admission that the doctor agrees that the patient’s life is of no value. It is hard to imagine a more contemptuous act.

In the relationship with a sick and despairing patient, the doctor is already too powerful. This is true of patients from the upper crust of society and more true of patients who are poor, disabled, immigrant or ethnic minorities. Assisted-suicide laws empower the same physicians who have diagnosed – or misdiagnosed – their patients as having a life-limiting disease to give them a prescription for a lethal drug, instead of honestly attempting to relieve their despair.

Eric Chevlen is an oncologist and pain medicine specialist in Youngstown, Ohio, who spent half his career practicing in Northern California.

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We Oppose Assisted Suicide

  • Access to Independence – San Diego
  • American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today – Northern California (ADAPT)
  • American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today – Southern California (ADAPT)
  • Alliance of Catholic Healthcare
  • American Academy of Medical Ethics (AAME)
  • American College of Physicians – American Society of Internal Medicine
  • American College of Pediatricians
  • American Medical Association
  • American Nursing Association
  • Association of Northern California Oncologists (ANCO)
  • Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL)
  • Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN)
  • Berkeley Commission on Disability
  • California Catholic Conference
  • California Chapter of TASH (CalTASH)
  • California Disability Alliance (CDA)
  • California Family Alliance
  • California Family Council
  • California Foundation for Independent Living Centers (CFILC)
  • California Latino Medical Association
  • California Nurses for Ethical Standards (CNES)
  • California ProLife Council
  • California Right to Life Education Fund
  • California State Council on Developmental Disabilities
  • Californians for Disability Rights (CDR)
  • Catholics for the Common Good
  • Center for Independence of Individuals with Disabilities (CID)
  • Christian Medical and Dental Association
  • Coalition for Concerned Medical Professionals
  • Communities Actively Living Independents and Free (CALIF)
  • Crusade for Life
  • De La Salle Institute
  • Disability Rights Center
  • Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF)
  • Disability Rights Enforcement Education Services (DREES)
  • Disability Section of the American Public Health Association
  • FREED, Center for Independent Living
  • Hispanics for Life
  • Independent Living Center of Southern California (ILCSC)
  • Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco (ILRCSF)
  • Independent Living Services of Northern California (ILSNC)
  • International Life Services
  • Joni and Friends
  • Justice for All (JFA)
  • La Raza Roundtable of Santa Clara County
  • League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
  • Life Priority Network
  • Life Legal Defense Foundation
  • Medical Oncology Association of Southern California (MOASC)
  • National Council on Disability
  • National Council on Independent Living (NCIL)
  • National Spinal Cord Injury Association
  • Not Dead Yet – California Chapter
  • Not Dead Yet (NDY)
  • Oakland Mayors Commission on Human Relations
  • Patients Rights Council
  • Physicians for Compassionate Care
  • Placer Independent Resource Services, Inc.
  • Pro-Life America
  • Right to Life League of Southern California
  • San Mateo County, CA
  • Scholl Institute of Bioethics
  • Second Thoughts, People Living with Disabilities Opposing Assisted Suicide
  • Southern California Cancer Pain Initiative
  • TASH
  • The Arc of California
  • The California Catholic Conference
  • The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network (CBC Network)
  • The Oaks Group
  • West Coast Pro Life
  • Western Service Workers Association
  • World Association of Persons with Disabilities (WAPD)