September 12, 2000

Law Professor Ponders Assisted-Suicide Issues

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In his newest book Prof. Larry I. Palmer, law, debates the legal issues of life and death. Palmer spent ten years weighing the pros and cons of assisted reproductive life on the New York State Bar, and has continued to do so throughout his time at Cornell.

In “Endings and Beginnings: Law, Medicine and Society in Assisted Life and Death”, published this past spring, Palmer explores complicated legal issues surrounding the Constitutional right to die and assisted suicide. The book does not however, target a specific audience such as lawyers or legislatures, Palmer said.

In his book, Palmer stresses the alternatives to assisted suicide which many may never consider during their contemplation of living and dying.

Unknown to many, one of these options is Hospice Care, a service which provides all kinds of treatment for the terminally ill, from live-in therapy to grievance counseling for their relatives. Ithaca boasts its own Hospice Care unit, staffed by social workers and equipped with six beds ready to serve the needy, Palmer said.

According to Palmer, most of the sick never make it to Hospice Care. For them, the heart of the issue lies much closer to home than care providers. The real debate is who should make the decision about whether they live or die.

For Palmer, the choice is clearly a personal one. In “Endings and Beginnings” he notes that entrusting doctors with a private right can have dangerous repercussions.

“People should decide how they live and not doctors,” Palmer said.

“If doctors have the power, over time you could have doctors decide who should live and who shouldn’t.”

With the cost incentives that often make death a cheaper alternative than prolonged medical treatment, “it would be easy to write them off fast,” Palmer added.

“We don’t like to think about death,” Palmer said. As he illustrates in “Endings and Beginnings”, death is a serious issue which affects our children and the way we live.

In order to bridge this intricate relationship of the doctor, the patient, and the family, Palmer said, “Doctors should learn about pain management,” to allow patients to decide for themselves.

Pain management would allow doctors to better empathize with their patients on a personal level. “We tend to see people’s pain from our perspective,” Palmer added.

Palmer’s book is in part, a response to Dr. assisted suicide philosophy. Kevorkian’s 1994 acquittal gave Palmer ideas for “Endings and Beginnings.”

The trial inspired a flurry of public opinion polls on assisted death. Most people agreed that doctors should have the legal right to perform assisted suicide, according to Palmer. He was taken aback by people’s readiness in the surveys to give up this right, and was perplexed by the contrast between their voiced interests to do so and real hesitations to actualize their opinion.

“Endings and Beginnings” also addresses issues concerning the field of assisted life and the results of abortions and egg donations for families.

“The big issue is related to the cloning of human beings … people ought to start thinking about how they feel about that,” Palmer said.

“You can’t do much to stop assisted reproduction,” Palmer said. He argues that the topic should remain a personal one without legal intervention.

“Endings and, Beginnings” has generated beginnings of a different sort for Palmer himself. The book will take him to Colorado this fall where he will lecture on assisted life and death at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He also plans to use “Endings and Beginnings” in Spring 2002, when he plans to teach a law and medicine class.

Archived article by Lizzie Andrews