The Parable of the Unwilling Physician

The Parable of the Unwilling Physician

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
May 7, 2009

Stephen Wallace had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer, and he wanted his doctor and the local hospital to help him commit suicide, but they would not.  Now, his children are speaking out, and this opens a new angle on the issue of assisted suicide.

The new assisted suicide law in Washington State allows for assisted suicide under some conditions.  Nevertheless, many doctors in the state opposed the measure, and a conscience clause was written into the law, clearly allowing physicians and hospitals to refuse participation in suicide.

According to the Los Angeles Times, only about a third of the state’s hospitals now allow their physicians to assist terminal patients to die.  Outside of the state’s major population centers, few doctors participate in assisted suicides.  The headline of the paper’s article tells the story:  “In Rural Washington State, Law Allows Assisted Suicide, But Most Doctors Don’t.”

In Wallace’s case, his doctor just could not reconcile participation in assisted suicide with his role as a healer.  Dr. Idar Rommen, a family practitioner in the same area, offered a sympathetic understanding of his colleague’s decision.  “To me, personally, giving a patient a suicide pill is like abdicating my role . . . .  I’m here to heal and to make better. And the other just doesn’t seem like that’s what I went into medicine to do.”

Some want to require doctors and hospitals to participate in euthanasia and assisted suicide.  As the paper reports:

“They want to force doctors to act against their conscience and to become essentially vending machines for individuals who requisition overdoses to kill themselves,” said William L. Toffler, a professor of family medicine and executive director of Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation, which has opposed assisted-suicide statutes “The solution to suffering,” he said, “never is to eliminate the sufferer.

In Great Britain, where the issue is now a focal controversy, doctors are the most stalwart opponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide.  In the United States, the American Medical Association also opposes the practice.  As “Opinion 2.211 – Physician-Assisted Suicide” of the AMA Code of Medical Ethics states (in part):

Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.  Instead of participating in assisted suicide, physicians must aggressively respond to the needs of patients at the end of life. Patients should not be abandoned once it is determined that cure is impossible.

The fact that most doctors oppose physician-assisted suicide is morally significant.  Physicians devote themselves to their profession in order to be healers, not killers.  Requiring doctors to assist in suicides would be a true example of tyranny, but some proponents of euthanasia argue that doctors should not be allowed this exercise of conscience.

The same logic pertains with respect to abortion.  Outside the major metropolitan areas of this nation, abortions, though legal, can be hard to obtain, simply by virtue of the fact that no physician is willing to perform them.  The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion research organization, claims that 46 states “allow some health care providers to refuse to provide abortion services.” [see report, PDF file]

Keep all this in mind as the Obama administration is considering proposals to limit or eliminate federal conscience protections for doctors, hospitals, and health care workers.  A physician forced to participate in killing, whether at the beginning or end stage of life, is a physician forced to abandon the first principle of medical ethics — do no harm.

Listen carefully as Dr. Toffler puts the issue into clear perspective:  “The solution to suffering never is to eliminate the sufferer.”

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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