Document Type


Publication Date



One of the unintended consequences of the decade-old public debate about the legalization of physician-assisted suicide is an increased interest in pain control for terminally ill patients. Pain control and other aspects of palliative care are seen not only as medically desirable but as necessary to assure so as to minimize the pressure to legalize physician-assisted suicide or utilize physician-assisted suicide even if not legal. Most of the public debate has centered on the role of physicians in assisted suicide.

However, there has been very little discussion about the role that health care professionals - - other than physicians -- would play if assisted suicide were legalized. One group of health care professionals -- besides physicians -- that is likely to be involved in legalized assisted suicide is pharmacists, who would dispense lethal substances prescribed by physicians. The debate about the legalization of assisted suicide has also served as an important catalyst to less drastic alternatives, most notably pain control. This, too, implicates pharmacists because an important, if not the predominant, mechanism of pain control is prescription medications. Any barriers that are placed in the way of pharmacists dispensing medications in accordance with a physician's legitimate prescription for pain control undermines the rights that patients might have to receive such medication and interferes with good end-of-life care. In addition, legal barriers to terminally ill patients receiving adequate medications for pain control undermine the Supreme Court's reasoning about the constitutionality of state statutes making assisted suicide a crime and could lead the Court to reconsider its decisions. Finally, legal barriers to the dispensing of medications for patients to use in physician-assisted suicide, where it is legal, interferes with this right as well. Although approximately 20 states have enacted statutes intended to make pain control medication more readily available by removing liability for patient death caused unintentionally caused by such medications, these statutes provide inadequate protection. If terminally ill patients are to receive the medications they need so that they may die peacefully, without preventable suffering, courts, legislatures, and administrative agencies will need to give pharmacists as well as physicians sufficient latitude to practice their professions in accordance with the intent of the palliative care statutes and the Supreme Court decisions.