While euthanasia and assisted suicide are currently illegal in most countries, the practice of voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED) is seen by some as an ethically and legally permissible alternative. VSED refers to seriously-ill patients refusing to eat and drink for a sustained period of time with the intention of bringing about their own death.
Yet a new paper published in BMC Medicine argues that VSED is ethically indistinguishable from assisted suicide, and should be subject to the same legal regulations as more salient cases of assistance in dying.
The paper, lead-authored by Ralf J. Jox of the Institute for Ethics, History and Theory of Medicine at the University of Munich, argues that “supporting patients who embark on VSED amounts to assistance in suicide, at least in some instances, depending on the kind of support and its relation to the patient’s intention”.
While VSED does not involve an invasive or aggressive act like many other means of suicide, the authors write that “VSED should [nevertheless] be considered as a form of suicide, as there is both an intention to bring about death and an omission that directly causes this effect”. Doctors who assist patients in VSED — by encouraging them, or promising pain-relief if VSED is undertaken — are potentially instrumental in the deaths of the patients, as the suicide would not occur without them, and they share the patient’s intention of inducing death.
The authors of the paper conclude that the same legal prescriptions or regulations that apply to physician assisted suicide should also apply to VSED.
“[We] maintain… that future ethical discussions on assisted suicide require consideration of medically supported VSED, and vice versa…Thus, the widely held position by palliative care societies, professional bodies of physicians, legal scholars, and ethicists to disapprove of assisted suicide but approve of and even promote medically supported VSED appears inconsistent”.
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