Geriatricians’ attitudes toward assisted suicide

Geriatricians’ attitudes toward assisted suicide – Tips from Other Journals

Physicians’ attitudes toward assisted suicide are shaped by many diverse influences, including religious beliefs, personal values, professional ethics and past experiences. The recent case of Dr. Kevorkian, a retired pathologist who assisted Janet Adkins (who had Alzheimer-type dementia) in ending her life, has prompted much debate about physician-assisted suicide. Most studies have indicated that physicians are reluctant to be involved in assisted suicide but are supportive of a patient’s right to die, especially terminally ill patients.

However, no study has examined physicians’ attitudes toward assisted suicide in patients who are not terminally ill, such as patients with dementia. Watts and colleagues mailed a survey on the subject to 1,381 certified internist-geriatricians from across the country. The survey included six questions, two of which focused on the Adkins/Kevorkian case. Each question had three possible answers: positive, negative or unsure.

A total of 727 physicians (53 percent) responded to the survey. Although 66 percent of the physicians stated that Dr. Kevorkian’s assistance was not morally justifiable, 49 percent felt that Janet Adkins’ decision to commit suicide was not morally wrong. Forty-three percent felt that a competent dementia patient should not be prevented from committing suicide, and 40 percent said that if they were diagnosed as having dementia they would consider suicide as an option. However, even if current legal and ethical sanctions were eased 66 percent of the physicians would still not consider assisting the suicide of a competent dementia patient.

Twenty-six percent of the physicians supported an easing of restrictions on physician-assisted suicide and 57 percent were in opposition. Those who opposed an easing of restrictions most often cited concerns about the potential abuses of physician-assisted suicide.

Although the majority of geriatricians did not favor an easing of restrictions nor would they help a patient commit suicide, almost half accepted unassisted suicide in a competent dementia patient and would consider it as an option for themselves.

The authors suggest that the study results can help in developing public policy regarding the place of physician-assisted suicide in the context of slowly progressing chronic illnesses such as dementia. (Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, September 1992, vol. 40, . 878.)

COPYRIGHT 1993 American Academy of Family Physicians

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group