Sunday, February 3, 2019

New Mexico should oppose assisted suicide

The following excellent letter was written by Dr Anthony Vigil and published in the Sante Fe New Mexican on February 2, 2019.
Dr Anthony Vigil 
From the Oath of Hippocrates:
 
“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.” 
When I began medical school decades ago, we were not taught that there were a handful of clinicians out there who were interested in assisting patients with suicide (suicide definition: ending one’s life voluntarily and intentionally) or assisting at death row executions. 
There was really no need; we were there because we wanted to be healers. Also, the American Medical Association, the largest association of physicians in the world, has clear ethical guidelines prohibiting its members from participating in assisted suicide or assisting at state sanctioned executions. 
For now, the New Mexico Medical Board shares the same ethical standards of the AMA, and it will enforce and correct any deviations from ethical standards. However, that could change, depending on New Mexico’s proposed assisted suicide legislation.
The Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act, House Bill 90, would make assisted suicide legal throughout the state. Proponents in New Mexico have been trying to pass assisted suicide legislation for years, but it has thus far been unsuccessful. Recently in 2016, the New Mexico Supreme Court chose to uphold the state’s current law punishing anyone who participates in an assisted suicide with a fourth-degree felony. Again, in 2017, another legislative effort to legalize assisted suicide failed. 
The past legislative efforts to allow assisted suicide in New Mexico have been unsuccessful for a reason. Assisted suicide is dangerous, hard to regulate and puts the most vulnerable in society at risk for mistakes, coercion and abuse. 
It is hypocritical for clinicians to decry the rates of suicide in our state, including veteran-related suicide and teen suicide, and yet promote the suicide of a small fraction of vulnerable patients to “prevent unnecessary suffering.” A physician’s place is not to decide which sector of the population should be able to have suicide as an option versus other groups who should not have that option. 
Physicians are indeed trained to alleviate the physical suffering of most any patient, up and to the point of loss of consciousness. It turns out, however, that physical suffering is not one of the main reasons patients request assisted suicide. In Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal for 20 years, physical pain does not even make the top five reasons a person requests assisted suicide. According to data from Oregon’s public health department, the No. 1 reason people opt for assisted suicide is because of loss of autonomy. Other top reasons include losing dignity or becoming a burden on family, all of which are related to existential suffering and disability — not physical pain. 
Patients who are contemplating assisted suicide need a strong support network with physicians who are committed to healing, not death. Assisted suicide is dangerous and hard to regulate. It leaves the most vulnerable members in society, the terminally ill, the poor and the financially disadvantaged, at risk for coercion and abuse. New Mexico should follow the American Medical Association and the New Mexico Medical Board’s opposition to assisted suicide. 
Physicians are healers by nature and to participate in anything other than healing patients violates the Hippocratic Oath. I hope that New Mexico legislators uphold the current law and reject the Elizabeth Whitefield End of Life Options Act. 
Dr. Anthony Vigil is a general surgeon practicing in Albuquerque.

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