The Public Interest

Killing off the dying?

Adam Wolfson

Spring 1998

AMERICANS seem ready to embrace something extraordinary: a practice called assisted death whereby a physician helps an ailing patient kill himself. “Kill” is a harsh word, and advocates understandably use it rarely. They prefer “death control,” or “death with dignity,” or “self-deliverance,” or, more pleasant still, “spiritual birthing” and “mid-wifing through the dying process.” However, as legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin notes in his book Life’s Dominion, “legally sanctioned killing” is in some instances what’s under consideration. Another prominent advocate of the practice, Timothy E. Quill, agrees: “Doctors ‘killing’ patients is technically correct.” He should know. He’s done it. In a widely discussed 1991 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, the professor of medicine and psychiatry revealed that he had prescribed a lethal dose of barbiturates to his patient Diane who had been diagnosed with leukemia. “I made sure that she knew how to use the barbiturates for sleep, and also that she knew the amount needed to commit suicide,” he wrote.

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