Feature Archive

Taking Life Away

A look at the legality of assisted suicide.

WebMD Feature

In March 1998, an Oregon woman dying of breast cancer asked her physician to prescribe a drug that would allow her to end her life. The doctor agreed. Later in the month she took the medication. With that action, she became the first person in the United States to commit suicide with the help of a doctor -- legally.

This has come to be known as "physician-assisted suicide." A physician honors a patient's voluntary request for a lethal dose of medication, which the patient later administers to him- or herself. It's legal only in the state of Oregon, and has been only since late 1997.

A few other states are making efforts to legalize assisted suicide. But soon Congress may put a stop to it everywhere.

The Pros and Cons

The issue of physician-assisted suicide is emotional and controversial -- it ranks right up there with abortion. According to Clarence H. Braddock III, MD, a faculty member of the University of Washington's departments of medicine and medical history and ethics, the arguments in favor of legalizing assisted suicide generally run along these lines:

  • People should be able to control their own lives.
  • Some terminally ill patients are allowed to end their lives by refusing medical treatments; in all fairness, those who don't have that option should be allowed to choose death. * Death is a compassionate way to relieve unbearable suffering.
  • Legal or not, assisted suicides occur, and it would be better if they were brought into the open.