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Physician-Assisted Suicide: Finding a Path Forward in a Changing
Legal Environment
Imagine yourself with a disease that has recently be-
come terminal. What kinds of treatments and options
would be most important to you? Almost everyone
would want to be sure their physicians had considered,
if not tried, all potentially effective disease-directed
therapy and best possible palliative treatments to max-
imize their quantity and quality of life. Many patients
would want to consider a timely transition to hospice
care if no acceptable disease-directed therapies ex-
isted, hoping to live as fully as possible for their remain-
ing time, and then to die peacefully. On these points
we are completely in sync with the American College of
Physicians (ACP) position paper (1).

We also know that most patients would want to
know that they could refuse burdensome treatments
that may keep them alive but with a low quality of life.
(In fact, most patients die having forgone some poten-
tially life-sustaining treatment.) A substantial minority of
terminally ill patients also would want some assurances
about their ability to access or potentially activate a
physician-assisted suicide if their suffering becomes un-
acceptable (2). For many of these patients, the motiva-
tion is to maintain control over the manner and timing
of their own death (many have been making a series of
very challenging decisions throughout their illness and
see no reason not to stay in charge of the last phase).
Others fear the potential of unacceptable physical suf-
fering in the last phase of their illness, perhaps on the
basis of experience. Still others might find that the pro-
longed debility and dependence that might occur dur-
ing the dying process are unacceptable (3).

Knowledge about what “last-resort” options are
available (4), as well as which options one’s own doctor
can support, would be reassuring to these patients. It
would free their emotional energy for other psychoso-
cial and spiritual matters potentially critical to this last
phase of life, and most patients ultimately will not need
a medically assisted death if they receive excellent end-

of-life care. However, even with the best possible palli-
ative and hospice care, a small percentage of patients
eventually will want direct assistance with dying now.
Carefully exploring the why now for such requests and
redoubling efforts to palliate suffering are the next
steps, followed by an exploration of legally available
options for responding (2).

The legal landscape for patients who want to end
their life now is rapidly changing in North America and
western Europe (5). Both physician-assisted suicide and
voluntary active euthanasia have been legal in the
Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg for many
years, and both recently were legalized in Canada.
Physician-assisted suicide is now legal in 6 states and
the District of Columbia (affecting one sixth of the U.S.
population), whereas it remains either explicitly illegal
or legally uncertain in the remaining states.

Most of the U.S. population favors legalization of
physician-assisted death, although support decreases
slightly when the word suicide is used in questionnaires
(5). The medical profession’s views are decidedly
mixed on the subject of legal access. Most U.S. physi-
cians would want access for themselves, but a smaller
percentage would be willing to provide assistance to
their patients (6). Positions of professional organiza-
tions also vary on this subject. For example, the ACP
joins the American Medical Association in opposing the
practice (1), whereas the American Academy of Hos-
pice and Palliative Medicine has a neutral position, and
the American Medical Student Association and the
American Medical Women’s Association are in favor of
legalization. How should individual physicians proceed
when opinions are so deeply divided?

We clearly support the steps outlined in the ACP
position statement with regard to “responding to pa-
tient requests for assisted suicide” (1). However, if re-
quests persist and the unacceptable suffering contin-
ues, we believe all legally available last-resort options

This article was published at on 19 September 2017.

Table 1. Last-Resort Options

Intervention Ethical Consensus Regarding

Legal Status

Aggressive symptom management Widely accepted in North America and
western Europe

Legally permitted

Stopping or not starting life-sustaining therapy Widely accepted in North America and
western Europe

Legally permitted

Palliative sedation (potentially to unconsciousness) Consensus if death unintended; controversial

Probably permissible but never tested

Voluntarily stopping eating and drinking Some controversy, often depending on
religious views

Probably permissible but never tested

Physician-assisted suicide Opinion about permissibility differs widely Legally permitted in 6 states and the District of
Columbia; legality uncertain in most other
states; legal in Canada

Voluntary active euthanasia Opinion about permissibility differs widely Illegal and likely to be prosecuted in the United
States; legal in Canada

Annals of Internal Medicine EDITORIAL

© 2017 American College of Physicians 597

should be explored (Table 1). Clinicians should deter-
mine in advance which options they can and cannot
personally support (4). They should extend themselves,
if possible, to respond to their patients’ needs and re-
quests without violating their fundamental personal val-
ues, regardless of the status of the law. If a patient de-
sires a legally permitted option that the physician
cannot support and common ground cannot be found,
the patient should be given the opportunity to change
physicians in a timely way so that access is allowed.

Given the rapidly changing legal environment with
regard to physician-assisted suicide and voluntary ac-
tive euthanasia, we are concerned that concluding a
guideline by stating “physicians should not do this” is a
problematic public health response. Even if one per-
sonally disagrees with the behavior, studying it might
tell us much about the state of end-of-life care and how
it can be improved. The Remmelink studies from the
Netherlands (5) and Oregon Health Department data
(7) provide examples of collecting meaningful informa-
tion in an attempt to understand and improve practice.
The scale and diversity of a state like California and a
country like Canada warrant similar studies. Table 2
gives examples of areas that should be examined as
these large-scale implementation efforts are under way.

In addition, we worry that the ACP’s rigid opposi-
tion will prevent physicians who will practice physician-
assisted suicide from sharing ideas about better poli-
cies and procedures. Given the diversity of opinions
and the legality of the procedure for so many people,
this response seems like a missed opportunity to edu-
cate clinicians and learn about best practices.

We should continue to debate the ethical and
moral implications of permitting or prohibiting poten-

tially life-ending medical practices. We need to support
an environment that both redoubles our efforts to pro-
vide palliative and hospice care to all seriously ill pa-
tients and enhances our imperative to listen and re-
spond to those who still feel they may need an escape
from the last stages of this process. We currently have
an opportunity to learn about this process on a larger
scale with a more diverse population than ever before.
Let’s make sure our processes and safeguards are as
robust and responsive as possible, and let’s learn as
much as we can so that these new laws help us serve
our patients and families in the best way possible.

Timothy E. Quill, MD
University of Rochester Medical Center
Rochester, New York

Robert M. Arnold, MD
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Stuart J. Youngner, MD
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio

Disclosures: Disclosures can be viewed at

Requests for Single Reprints: Timothy E. Quill, MD, University
of Rochester Medical Center, 601 Elmwood Avenue, Box 687,
Rochester, NY 14642; e-mail, [email protected]

Current author addresses are available at

Ann Intern Med. 2017;167:597-598. doi:10.7326/M17-2160

1. Snyder Sulmasy L, Mueller PS; Ethics, Professionalism and Human
Rights Committee of the American College of Physicians. Ethics and
the legalization of physician-assisted suicide: an American College of
Physicians position paper. Ann Intern Med. 2017;167:576-8. doi:10
2. Quill TE. Doctor, I want to die. Will you help me? JAMA. 1993;270:
870-3. [PMID: 8340988]
3. Pearlman RA, Hsu C, Starks H, Back AL, Gordon JR, Bharucha AJ,
et al. Motivations for physician-assisted suicide. J Gen Intern Med.
2005;20:234-9. [PMID: 15836526]
4. Quill TE, Lo B, Brock DW. Palliative options of last resort: a com-
parison of voluntarily stopping eating and drinking, terminal seda-
tion, physician-assisted suicide, and voluntary active euthanasia.
JAMA. 1997;278:2099-104. [PMID: 9403426]
5. Emanuel EJ, Onwuteaka-Philipsen BD, Urwin JW, Cohen J. Atti-
tudes and practices of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in
the United States, Canada, and Europe. JAMA. 2016;316:79-90.
[PMID: 27380345] doi:10.1001/jama.2016.8499
6. Meier DE, Emmons CA, Wallenstein S, Quill T, Morrison RS, Cassel
CK. A national survey of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia
in the United States. N Engl J Med. 1998;338:1193-201. [PMID:
7. Oregon Health Authority. Death with Dignity Act Annual Reports.
2017. Accessed at
/Pages/ar-index.aspx on 18 August 2017.

Table 2. Representative Study Questions to Understand
the Effect of Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide

Second opinions
Presence of palliative care and/or hospice

Main reason
Acceptance rates
Refusal rates
Hypothetical future vs. now

Second opinions
Who provides
Palliative care certification
Acceptance vs. refusal rates

Practical aspects
Change in primary treating physician
Number of visits from initial request
Actual methods

Long-term effect
Family members
Participating clinicians
Participating consultants
Hospice workers

EDITORIAL Physician-Assisted Suicide: A Path Forward in a Changing Legal Environment

598 Annals of Internal Medicine • Vol. 167 No. 8 • 17 October 2017

Current Author Addresses: Dr. Quill: University of Rochester
Medical Center, 601 Elmwood Avenue, Box 687, Rochester,
NY 14642.
Dr. Arnold: 1232 North Highland Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA
Dr. Youngner: Department of Bioethics, Case Western Re-
serve University, 10900 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44106. Annals of Internal Medicine • Vol. 167 No. 8 • 17 October 2017

Copyright © American College of Physicians 2017.

The Slippery Slope of Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide

The American College of Physicians (ACP) positionpaper on the legalization of physician-assisted sui-
cide reaffirms the ACP’s opposition to this practice,
even though it is now legal in several countries and U.S.
jurisdictions (1). The ACP’s position deserves credit for
its clarity and courage.

Among other achievements, the ACP paper identi-
fies “euthanasia” and “medical assistance in dying” as
euphemisms. These terms do what euphemisms are
supposed to do: make a distasteful subject palatable,
or at least discussable. The social process of change
in ethical and moral standards makes bold use of
such euphemisms. At one time, “mercy killing” and
physician-assisted suicide were both illegal and un-
thinkable. However, times are changing, and the
changes have followed a recognizable pattern (2). First,
the unthinkable becomes discussable although highly
controversial. After a while, it is seen as acceptable un-
der certain circumstances. As it becomes more familiar,
it seems increasingly sensible and reasonable. Finally, it
is established as a legal right. In this way, what was
once unthinkable can eventually become policy, or
even a duty (3).

Space limitations permit only a brief consideration
here of arguments for and against medically assisted
suicide. The argument in favor that is based on “non-
abandonment” ignores a conscientious physician’s
commitment to relieve suffering and to accompany
sick and dying patients to the very end. We all should
provide “medical assistance in dying” and not abandon
our suffering patients. This argument also tends to stig-
matize those who object to suicide as a solution to

The “slippery-slope” objection to medical suicide
and euthanasia may be dismissed as alarmist, but it is
not easily refuted. Euthanasia was legalized in the Neth-
erlands in 2002, with multiple safeguards against
abuse. However, in 2015, the Dutch government re-
ported that hundreds of persons were put to death
without their express consent or because of psychiatric
illness, dementia, or just “old age” (4). In addition, the
Groningen protocol has legalized infanticide in the
Netherlands. In view of these developments, it is laud-
able that Oregon, Canada, and other jurisdictions have
built safeguards into their end-of-life legislation. How-
ever, a slope still exists, and it may be fairly steep.

The argument based on intractable suffering ap-
peals to a physician’s sense of empathy. However, if
hard cases make bad law, they also may produce un-
wise medical policies, and the argument surely greases
the slippery slope. If intractable physical suffering is a
justification for actively ending life, why should intracta-
ble existential angst, a severe sense of personal alien-
ation, or the helplessness and hopelessness of severe
depression not be as well?

The principle of patient autonomy seems the
weightiest of the arguments in favor of medical eutha-
nasia or suicide, and with good reason. It alone of the 4
pillars of medical ethics can survive Western society’s
transition toward a post-Christian antinomianism. Be-
neficence would now be defined as whatever the pa-
tient believes to be helpful. Nonmaleficence and justice
would be whatever the patient says they are, absent
external standards. Autonomy alone would stand unas-
sailed and, by default, carry the day. Who is to say that
what I want for myself is the wrong thing?

A person might say it is wrong if he or she recog-
nizes an objective moral standard, namely that human
life has intrinsic worth and dignity and that its value
extends beyond the individual to the community. This
might be true even if its owner doesn’t recognize it for
a time or if others believe that one’s life is “not worth
living.” Some hold that this moral standard (along with
many others) can be known from nature or discovered
by reason. Others reach it intuitively or find it in revela-
tion, still others in all of the above. Of course, in a plu-
ralistic society, not everyone believes in or will agree on
objective moral standards, or which one prevails when
they seem to conflict.

One may reply that the dignity and worth of human
life are not absolute values. For example, it is recog-
nized that some life-prolonging treatments are dispro-
portionate or even futile. However, as the ACP position
paper points out, neither is patient autonomy an abso-
lute value. We do not always give patients whatever
they ask for: A futile treatment? No. An illegal prescrip-
tion? No. We therefore find ourselves weighing differ-
ent considerations with regard to assisted suicide.
Many will give considerable weight to the presumption
that human life is intrinsically valuable, especially in
view of what may happen if this value is held as less
compelling than autonomy, or utility, or health care

The weakest part of the ACP’s position against
medical suicide is its objection on the basis that such
provision lies outside the scope of medical practice. I
disagree. If assisted suicide and euthanasia are right
and good, physicians should willingly accede; if they
are wrong, they should not be done by anybody.

With clarity and courage, the ACP has reaffirmed its
opposition to physician-assisted suicide. Perhaps the
vote was close; the tide of opinion may be turning, and
the next iteration of the ACP’s position might be differ-
ent. Autonomy and self-determination are ascendant,
and there are warnings of intolerance toward those
who object. Nonetheless, physicians opposed to the
provision of euthanasia and medically assisted suicide
should not be cowed by attempts to place them “out-
side the mainstream.” Where these practices are
legal, I believe that physicians should firmly decline to

This article was published at on 19 September 2017.

Annals of Internal Medicine EDITORIAL

© 2017 American College of Physicians 595

It is time to return to our duty at the bedside. Our
compassion calls us there, as Dr. Edward Trudeau is
credited to have said, “to cure sometimes, to relieve
often, to comfort always,” but not to kill or to assist in or
facilitate killing. With time, we will see whether our col-
lective cultural conscience, including respect for the in-
trinsic value of human life, can keep us from sliding
down the slope. Otherwise, it will merely mitigate our
speed as we descend.

William G. Kussmaul III, MD
Media, Pennsylvania

Disclosures: The author has disclosed no conflicts of interest.
Form can be viewed at

Requests for Single Reprints: William G. Kussmaul III, MD,
5 Arrowhead Trail, Media, PA 19063; e-mail, w.kussmaul

Ann Intern Med. 2017;167:595-596. doi:10.7326/M17-2072

1. Snyder Sulmasy L, Mueller PS; Ethics, Professionalism and Human
Rights Committee of the American College of Physicians. Ethics and
the legalization of physician-assisted suicide: an American College of
Physicians position paper. Ann Intern Med. 2017;167:576-8. doi:10
2. Marsh L. The flaws of the Overton window theory: how an obscure
libertarian idea became the go-to explanation for this year’s crazy
politics. New Republic. 27 October 2016. Accessed at https:
// on
21 August 2017.
3. Stahl RY, Emanuel EJ. Physicians, not conscripts— conscientious
objection in health care. N Engl J Med. 2017;376:1380-5. [PMID:
28379789] doi:10.1056/NEJMsb1612472
4. Francis N. Netherlands—2015 euthanasia report card. Dying for
Choice Web site. Accessed at
/fact-files/netherlands-2015-euthanasia-report-card on 18 August

EDITORIAL The Slippery Slope of Legalization of Physician-Assisted Suicide

596 Annals of Internal Medicine • Vol. 167 No. 8 • 17 October 2017

Copyright © American College of Physicians 2017.

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