January 21, 2016


WASHINGTON (January 21, 2016) – The debate over physician-assisted death (PAD) appears to be at a turning point, with a significant number of state legislatures across the country considering PAD, say two Georgetown University scholars, but, they caution, social and ethical safeguards are needed.

In a JAMA Viewpoint published online today, Lawrence O. Gostin and Anna E. Roberts of Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, examine state laws surrounding physician-assisted death, their constitutionality, the practice of “death with dignity,” its impact on public opinion, and the potential for abuse of legalized physician assisted suicide.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not prohibit physicians from prescribing controlled drugs to assist patient deaths if authorized under state law. This ruling led to several states permitting PAD.

Decades of research have focused on whether physician assisted death has been misused and whether gaps exist in legislative safeguards.

“There are multiple concerns with physicians assisting patients to die: incompatibility with the physician’s role as a healer, devaluation of human life, coercion of vulnerable individuals (e.g., the poor and disabled), and the risk that PAD will be used beyond a narrow group of terminally ill individuals.” write Gostin and Roberts.

“…PAD is a deeply personal choice. The question is whether more states will authorize the practice and, if so, what safeguards will be put in place to ensure the practice is not misused and remains consistent with prevailing social and ethical thought, “they write.

Read the full Viewpoint “Physician-Assisted Dying: A Turning Point?” at JAMA.com.

Gostin is University Professor at Georgetown University and faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. Roberts is a law fellow at the Institute.

The O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University is the premier center for health law, scholarship, and policy. Its mission is to contribute to a more powerful and deeper understanding of the multiple ways in which law can be used to improve the public’s health, using objective evidence as a measure. The O’Neill Institute seeks to advance scholarship, science, research, and teaching that will encourage key decision-makers in the public, private, and civil society to employ the law as a positive tool for enabling more people in the United States and throughout the world to lead healthier lives.