The practice of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in the United States: adherence to proposed safeguards and effects on physicians

JAMA. 1998 Aug 12;280(6):507-13. doi: 10.1001/jama.280.6.507.


Context: Despite intense debates about legalization, there are few data examining the details of actual euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS) cases in the United States.

Objective: To determine whether the practices of euthanasia and PAS are consistent with proposed safeguards and the effect on physicians of having performed euthanasia or PAS.

Design: Structured in-depth telephone interviews.

Setting and participants: Randomly selected oncologists in the United States.

Outcome measures: Adherence to primary and secondary safeguards for the practice of euthanasia and PAS; regret, comfort, and fear of prosecution from performing euthanasia or PAS.

Results: A total of 355 oncologists (72.6% response rate) were interviewed on euthanasia and PAS. On 2 screening questions, 56 oncologists (15.8%) reported participating in euthanasia or PAS; 53 oncologists (94.6% response rate) participated in in-depth interviews. Thirty-eight of 53 oncologists described clearly defined cases of euthanasia or PAS. Twenty-three patients (60.5%) both initiated and repeated their request for euthanasia or PAS, but 6 patients (15.8%) did not participate in the decision for euthanasia or PAS. Thirty-seven patients (97.4%) were experiencing unremitting pain or such poor physical functioning they could not perform self-care. Physicians sought consultation in 15 cases (39.5%). Overall, oncologists adhered to all 3 main safeguards in 13 cases (34.2%): (1) having the patient initiate and repeat the request for euthanasia or PAS, (2) ensuring the patient was experiencing extreme physical pain or suffering, and (3) consulting with a colleague. Those who adhered to the safeguards had known their patients longer and tended to be more religious. In 28 cases (73.7%), the family supported the decision. In all cases of pain, patients were receiving narcotic analgesia. Fifteen patients (39.5%) were enrolled in a hospice. While 19 oncologists (52.6%) received comfort from having helped a patient with euthanasia or PAS, 9 (23.7%) regretted having performed euthanasia or PAS, and 15 (39.5%) feared prosecution.

Conclusions: Intractable pain or poor physical functioning seem to be nearly absolute requirements for physicians to perform euthanasia or PAS. Only one third of cases are performed consistently with proposed safeguards. For some patients, end-of-life care that includes opioid analgesia and hospice care does not obviate their desire for euthanasia or PAS. While the majority of physicians seem comforted by their actions, some experience adverse consequences from having performed euthanasia or PAS.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Empirical Research
  • Euthanasia / psychology
  • Euthanasia / statistics & numerical data*
  • Euthanasia, Active*
  • Euthanasia, Active, Voluntary*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Medical Oncology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Suicide, Assisted / psychology
  • Suicide, Assisted / statistics & numerical data*
  • United States