Seeking Assisted Suicide Is A Treatable Cry For Help

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By Dr. John G. O’Brien

Assisted suicide is a dangerous public policy, that would do much damage in New York. In my three decades of medical practice, one example stands out for illustrating the danger of legalizing assisted suicide.

I once saw an elderly patient of mine, Ellen, in the office after having been hospitalized numerous times for severe intestinal infections. Ellen suffered from chronic weakness and asked if there was any way to end her life sooner. Her husband had passed away, and she had one son, Paul, who she rarely saw. Ellen felt that she was a burden to Paul and thought life would be better for him if she were not around. She wanted assisted suicide.

What Ellen was experiencing, something which the current assisted suicide bill would not require her to be screened for, a treatable case of depression. Ellen had lost hope. She had lost faith in the health care system and did not trust that she would receive proper medical care. After this diagnosis, she agreed to go on a low dose of an antidepressant, and I was able to speak to her son, Paul, at his mother’s following appointment. The demeanor of both Ellen and Paul revealed a very cold relationship. When I explained Ellen’s request to Paul, he turned to his mother and asked why she would want to end her life? Ellen explained the infrequent contact and thought that he would be happier if she were dead. Although Ellen thought ending her life would be the best thing for everyone, she did not realize how negatively this would affect Paul. After this honest discussion, I encouraged Paul to communicate with his mother openly and treat her with the dignity she deserved.

After a couple weeks passed, I met with Ellen and Paul again. When Ellen returned with Paul, their interaction was completely different. Ellen had gained weight and was visibly happier. Paul was attentive and reviewed with me the quality time they had spent together in the previous two weeks. Ellen no longer wanted to die, and Paul had a renewed respect and love for his mother. A few months later, Ellen died of natural causes. Her son was thankful for the time he had with his mother and thankful that she received the appropriate, quality medical care, not assisted suicide.

Based on data from Oregon, the state where assisted suicide has been legal the longest, the top-five reasons that people choose assisted suicide are all existential, or disability-related and treatable. These top-five reasons include: being less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable, loss of autonomy, loss of dignity, being a burden on family/caregivers, and loss of control over bodily functions. Contrary to popular opinion, pain does not even make it into the top-five reasons. This list is revealing because each of these concerns are treatable with proper care. Assisted suicide fails to address these concerns, and instead offers premature death as a “treatment option.” New Yorkers deserve better than that.

When Ellen came to me, she was in despair and seeking what she believed was her only option. Had assisted suicide been legalized, Ellen could have been robbed of the happy moments she was able to spend with her son. Our elected representatives in New York need to be aware of the dangerous impacts that a policy of assisted suicide would have on our patients, the medical profession, and the state of New York. I urge our state legislators to reject this dangerous policy, and instead work to expand equal access to quality medical care, not death.

Dr. John G. O’Brien has been practicing family medicine for 34 years with Family Practice Associates, PLLC, serving several counties in Central New York.

Source: “Seeking assisted suicide is a treatable cry for help“,

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