Aside from the issue of abortion, it would be hard to find a medically-related topic as controversial as assisted suicide. It's a subject that touches our emotional core, gives rise to hard-line opinions and offers no easy solutions.
As the 20th century comes to an end, the care of the dying has become a flashpoint for legal maneuvering. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that states have a right to outlaw assisted suicide but left open whether states can choose to make it legal, leaving the matter unresolved.
Now that the court's ruling is in place, medical leaders need to undertake an effort to help the American public find a reasonable, well-examined and widely accepted answer to this thorny dilemma.
To some, it may seem a contradiction to expect those whose main duty is to help save lives focus on how to end life. But--despite our youth--bedazzled and instant gratification-seeking society--dying is a part of living. That means the medical profession has a special obligation to help society sort through the ethical, medical and legal implications of dying with dignity. In one sense, the failure of the medical profession to find a realistic answer to this quandary may have helped allow one physician, Jack Kevorkian, carve out a role as some macabre Dr. Death.
Leaders of organized medicine believe establishing a right to suicide would leave physicians and other healthcare professionals in the middle of a legal, moral and medical morass. Since that likely is true, it would be smart for medical leaders to focus in the near-term on finding ways to improve the care of dying patients.
One encouraging example is Supportive Care for the Dying, a coalition of six Catholic healthcare organizations that was formed following ballot initiatives in Oregon and Washington regarding physician-assisted suicide.
One key component of the program is the creation of mentoring programs to help doctors better meet the need of the dying and their family. Other initiatives involve improving hospice programs through provider training and teaching holistic supportive care skills to caregivers.
The American public is seeking guidance. Physician leaders can no longer afford to shirk their responsibility to help find solutions to completing the cycle of life.