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“Jump off!”

“Stop wasting our time, we’ve been here for ages, do us a favor!” the crowd gathered outside the McDonald’s restaurant shouted to the man 50 feet above them.

The 38-year-old, after eleven hours of police negotiation, relented and did not commit suicide. At least one witness was horrified at the crowd’s reaction. The March 2011 Daily Mail titled the story, “Sick Britain: The jeering crowds who urged suicidal man on McDonald’s roof to ‘jump off’.”

That was Britain in 2011. In the United States in 2012, we have our own story. It is a lawyer writing in Chest, a journal for pulmonologists, urging change in the way American doctors practice. When people with terminal illnesses wish to die, Kathryn Tucker writes, physicians should help them do that. But don’t call it physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia, or any of those names.

Call it “aid in dying.” She is not the first to suggest this, she points out.

The American Medical Women’s Association, or AMWA, has previously suggested this change in vocabulary – not change in procedure of physician-assisted suicide, mind you; just change in vocabulary. AMWA, according to Wikipedia, comprises ~3,000 women physicians and students. Its September 2007 Position Paper on Aid in Dying is available on the web. Although the position paper alludes to a variety of views within the AMWA regarding “aid in dying,” the organization concludes

AMWA supports patient autonomy and the right of terminally ill patients to hasten death. AMWA also believes the physician should have the right to engage in physician assisted dying. In addition, AMWA strongly supports the use of palliative care measures and hospice care for terminally ill patients.


How do they define “Physician Assisted Dying/ Aid in Dying”? It is the “most efficacious use of already available means, for the sole purpose of assisting the patient to hasten his/her death.” The patients should have a terminal illness (death predicted in six months from said illness), and be mentally competent. Physicians should have the right to decide whether or not to participate in this, the AMWA position paper states.

A person can be depressed and mentally competent. A person with a terminal illness can be depressed and mentally competent. Is there a difference between the ledge and the prescription for life-ending medication? There is a difference in the privacy of it, perhaps.

The man on the ledge was arrested after he came down; the AMWA and Ms. Tucker, who also provides legal assistance to Compassion and Choices (formed when the Hemlock Society joined a related organization ), would have no physician or patient arrested for the provision/procurement of life-ending drugs. The Daily Mail called Britain “sick” for encouraging a man on a ledge to commit suicide. Here in America, Ms. Tucker’s article was published in Chest. The man in the British story heard the crowd telling him that he had wasted their time, so he should jump. What will the man or woman with a terminal illness hear his American doctor say, if Ms. Tucker and the AMWA have their way?

The ledge and the lethal prescription symbolize, and indeed are, the way of fear. The onlookers crying, “Jump!” and the physician writing the prescription are both ways of caving into the fear.

Is this really all we have to offer, hastening others along a path we have yet to tread?

Caring for others takes time, be it administering pain medication correctly, changing clothes/diapers, or providing a listening ear to someone in need. It is part of the human condition, and we respond rightly to these human needs by caring enough to give of our time and resources.

Inhumanity to others – prescribing lethal medication to one in need of care, or shouting, “Jump!” to one on a ledge – is cheap and costs us little. Yet the recipients of such inhumane treatment are not only those with the prescriptions in their hands or the sounds of the taunting crowd in their ears. One day, it may well be you or me, unless we act now to make a difference.

What can we do?

1) This week make a difference to someone you know who needs some care. Send a card, visit, take a meal, clean a house, etc., etc.

2) Become a hospice volunteer.

3) Start a “No One Dies Alone” program at your local hospital.

4) Educate yourself about what bills are being introduced in your state as well as the national legislative bodies.

5) Do your state and federal legislators know what you think about this?

a. Pick up the phone and call them, write a letter, or visit their offices.

b. Put their numbers in your cell phone directory. Call them when these issues arise.

These are incremental things, assuredly, but added together, can make a big difference. Let’s reserve prescriptions for healing medications, and “Jump now!” for the playground.

[29 Sept 12, D. Joy Riley, M.D., M.A., Executive Director, The Tennessee Center for Bioethics and Culture is dedicated to promoting human dignity in the face of challenges to what it means to be human, and to informing and equipping people to face the vital bioethics issues of the 21st Century.]