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Physician Aid-in-Dying Laws Spread Throughout U.S.

On June 12, 2019, Maine became the ninth state to allow doctors by law to help terminally ill patients end their lives. Eighteen other states are considering the legislation and a Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Americans say they would want the choice.

Yet resistance remains. Critics fear that such rights will be abused, used to justify killing individuals who are disabled, mentally ill or vulnerable in other ways.

“I, too, was wary of such legislation until I witnessed my father’s situation,” said Dr. Robert Klitzman, Academic Director of the Master of Science in Bioethics program. “As a medical student, I had been trained to combat disease as much as I could for millennia doctors sought to first, do no harm. But seeing and understanding these issues from his perspective changed me.”

Physician aid-in-dying laws require certain safeguards. For instance, adults must be mentally capable have a prognosis of six months or less to live and request a medical prescription to hasten their death consistently over a period of time, after carefully considering the options. At least two physicians must interview the patient and review the request. The patient also must have palliative, or comfort care, available as an alternative.

Given these essential safeguards, so far no evidence suggests that this option has been abused. In fact, aid in dying has rarely been used. Merely the existence of this choice – allowing people confronting terminal disease to die in a peaceful and humane manner, if they wish – even if not taken, can provide an important sense of control.

Read the full story at Columbia News and learn more about the M.S. in Bioethics program at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies.