To provide or facilitate suicide is a betrayal of a fundamental ethos of psychiatry

By Alex Schadenberg, Executive Director, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition

Dr. Mark Komrad

Previously, I published an article titled: Is assisted suicide a suicide? based on the ongoing debate in the Psychiatric Times between psychiatrist, Dr. Mark Komrad and long-time euthanasia and assisted suicide activist Margaret Battin, Ph.D.

Dr. Michael von Poelnitz responded to one of Dr. Komrad’s articles with his personal story of accompanying his mother when she died by assisted suicide in Switzerland.  Dr. Komrad’s response did not challenge this physician but rather delved into “The Meaning of Compassion

The article’s subhead accurately summarizes Dr. Komrad’s approach in responding to proponents of assisted suicide: Proponents of medical aid in dying often accuse their opponents of lacking compassion. But what does that word really mean?

Dr. Komrad writes:

I am grateful for Michael von Poelnitz, MD’s letter “A Psychiatrist’s Personal Perspective on Medical Aid in Dying.” It is a valuable addition to Psychiatric Times ongoing debate on assisted suicide. I feel great compassion for him and his mother. I also appreciate his proper use of the word kill in this context, referring to the procedure used with his mother in Switzerland, as opposed to many of the other euphemisms that are often deployed, particularly by proponents of assisted suicide and euthanasia. Language plays a very important role in this conversation. Indeed, as George Orwell famously said, “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

The letter seems to imply that the medical killing discussed in my article about developments in Canada is involuntary, in contrast to the voluntary and cooperative nature of the process in his mother’s case. I note in my opening paragraph, however, that all these laws involve voluntary participation by patients in these procedures. Typically, a patient makes the initial request. 

However, some Canadian colleagues tell me they are being pressured to inform potentially eligible patients of the euthanasia option, even if patients do not bring it up. Even some physicians who are conscientious objectors are pressured to do this. 

However, there is also evidence that euthanasia is provided without request for some incompetent patients in the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) who have no family members available for proxy consent, nor advanced directives for euthanasia.

The letter also raises the issue of who does the killing. In some cases, it is indeed a patient’s psychiatrist. In one Dutch series, Scott Kim, MD, PhD and his team found that 73% of psychiatric euthanasias in 66 patients were performed by doctors who were already caring for the patient. Specifically in cases involving euthanasia for personality disorders, 30% of the euthanizing physicians were psychiatrists. As psychiatric euthanasia becomes available in 2 years in the large nation of Canada, numerous psychiatrists will have to confront euthanasia as a legal option for their suicidal patients, and they will increasingly be in positions to possibly approve it, and even provide the service.

Finally, a standard canard of those favoring euthanasia and assisted suicide is to portray those opposed to it as lacking empathy for patients’ agonies. I would turn that charge around. A core competency in psychiatry is to have a deep immersion and empathic understanding for such feelings, to have what Karl Jaspers, MD, PhD called verstehen— a sense of standing in a patient’s shoes. 

What the letter calls “a willingness to go beyond one’s own limitations in order to sense and perceive more broadly” should not mean transcending empathic understanding to aid and abet suicide. Rather, it should give us a deeper standpoint from which to deploy support and advocacy, to help patients find a path into the future, to help mobilize their support systems and state-of-the-art palliative care, and to attend to them devotedly in their suffering—demonstrating the true meaning of compassion: to suffer with

To provide or facilitate their suicide is a betrayal of a fundamental ethos of psychiatry.

You will find more articles related to Dr. Mark Komrad here.

Dr. Komrad is a psychiatrist on the teaching staff of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. He is also clinical assistant professor of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland, and Teaching Faculty of Psychiatry at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Editor’s note. This appeared on Mr. Schadenberg’s blog and is reposted with permission.