Jeff Jacoby
Recommend this article
IF HIPPOCRATES, the "Father of Western Medicine" were alive today, would he favor Question 2, the Massachusetts ballot initiative to authorize doctor-prescribed suicide?

Presumably not: The celebrated code of medical ethics that bears his name, which physicians for centuries took an oath to uphold, flatly forbids assisted suicide. "I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked," the Hippocratic Oath avows, "nor will I advise such a plan."

Some things never change, and one of them is the beguiling idea that doctors should be able to help patients kill themselves when incurable disease makes their lives unbearable. The advocates of Question 2 speak feelingly of the anguish of the terminally ill, suffering from awful symptoms that will only grow worse, and desperate to avoid the agonies to come. Not all of those agonies involve physical pain: Even worse for many people is the loss of autonomy, the mortifying collapse of bowel and bladder control, the intense unwillingness to be a burden to others, the existential despair of just waiting for death.

Question 2's supporters call their proposal the "Death with Dignity Act." As a matter of compassion and respect, they argue, we should allow dying patients to choose an early death when they decide their suffering is more than they can endure. "People have control over their lives," says Dr. Marcia Angell, the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and lead petitioner of the Massachusetts ballot measure. "They ought to have control over their deaths."

There is nothing new about this contention. The claim that assisted suicide can be an appropriate aspect of patient care, especially when the alternative is drawn-out misery inexorably ending in death, has been made since antiquity. Hippocrates heard the arguments too; then as now they exerted an undeniable emotional pull. There is a reason the Hippocratic Oath obliged new doctors to stand firm against it.
Recommend this article

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.