Buchbinder, Mara. 2017. Aid-in-dying laws and the physician’s duty to inform. Journal of Medical Ethics 43:666-669.

Abstract

On 19 July 2016, three medical organisations filed a federal lawsuit against representatives from several Vermont agencies over the Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act. The law is similar to aid-in-dying (AID) laws in four other US states, but the lawsuit hinges on a distinctive aspect of Vermont’s law pertaining to patients’ rights to information. The lawsuit raises questions about whether, and under what circumstances, there is an ethical obligation to inform terminally ill patients about AID as an end-of-life option. Much of the literature on clinical communication about AID addresses how physicians should respond to patient requests for assisted dying, but neglects the question of how physicians should approach patients who may not know enough about AID to request it. In this article, I examine the possibility of an affirmative duty to inform terminally ill patients about AID in light of ethical concerns about professional responsibilities to patients and the maintenance of the patient–provider relationship. I suggest that we should not take for granted that communication about AID ought to be patient-initiated, and that there may be circumstances in which physicians have good reasons to introduce the topic themselves. By identifying ethical considerations that ought to inform such discussions, I aim to set an agenda for future bioethical research that adopts a broader perspective on clinical communication about AID.

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