How Medically Assisted Suicide Works

The History of Medically Assisted Suicide

It may seem as though humankind has always opposed medically assisted suicide, but that's actually not true. In ancient Greece and Rome, there was a fair amount of support for voluntary (and involuntary) "mercy killings," particularly to avoid lengthy, painful deaths. Physicians often performed abortions and even infanticide, taking the lives of, say, babies born severely disabled.

Although the physicians' famed Hippocratic Oath came into prominence in the 6th century B.C.E. — part of which says, "I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy" — few doctors of that era followed it to the letter [sources: ProCon, Tyson].

The grave taboo associated with medically assisted death took root with the rise of Christianity and Judaism, which preached that life is a gift from God, and only he can take it away. By the Middle Ages, people around the globe were nearly united in their stance against the practice [source: ProCon].

It wasn't until the early 20th century that Americans began rethinking the issue. Or at least a few of them. Anna S. Hall, a feminist, campaigned in Ohio for physician-assisted deaths for terminally ill people after her mother suffered greatly before succumbing to liver cancer. And Charlotte Perkins Gilman, having grappled for three years with breast cancer, killed herself in 1935, writing in her suicide note: "When one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one" [source: Kitzinger].

Nothing really changed until 1994, however, when Oregon became the first state to approve an assisted-suicide law. The law went into effect in 1997, after surviving a court challenge. Since then, the practice has very slowly been gaining acceptance. By early 2016, physician-assisted suicide was legal in five states. As an issue reserved for the states to decide, each state's laws differ, although generally all stipulate patients must have less than six months to live, be residents of the state, obtain a prescription only from a licensed physician approved by that state. In 2016,another two dozen or so states plus Washington, D.C., were considering similar death-with-dignity legislation [sources: CNN, Lovett].

While physicians have long balked at helping their patients snuff out their lives, no matter the circumstances, a 2014 Medscape survey of more than 21,000 U.S. and European doctors showed that for the first time in the modern era, the majority of physicians — 54 percent — favor physician-assisted suicide [source: Kane].

Of course, this is an issue with pros and cons, which we'll explore on the next page.

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