Euphemistically called Aid in Dying, but really Permission to Kill

New Hampshire: Testimony Opposing SB426 (Assisted Suicide/Euthanasia Commission) 
Euphemistically called Aid in Dying, but is really Permission to Kill.

Note: Dr. Benzio’s testimony has been condensed for this newsletter.

dr ben Hello. My name is Karl Benzio. I am the Pennsylvania Director for the American Academy of Medical Ethics, and the Founder and Clinical Director of Lighthouse Network, an international Behavioral Healthcare nonprofit organization integrating Body, Mind, and Spirit principles to improve treatment access and outcomes for patients with addiction and mental health struggles.

For 25 years, I’ve been a licensed physician and practicing psychiatrist. I’ve successfully treated tens of thousands of patients, many being critically or terminally ill. I’ve worked with brutally traumatized victims of Joseph Kony in Uganda and, at the request of the Iraqi government, with severely traumatized, abused, and highly suicidal patients in war-torn Iraq. I see desperate people in unimaginable pain. No matter their circumstances, contemplating suicide does not occur lightly and is complex.

But, allowing anyone, especially doctors, to kill or help kill a person, is too dangerous to patients, doctors, the healthcare system, and society, especially when much better and safer options are available. The real solution is providing proper expertise and true compassion.

The most immediate danger, obviously, is to patients. According to medical definition, suicide is the destruction of one’s own life and prospects. We view this person as having impaired thinking and distorted judgment leading to compromised decision-making. This view contradicts physician-assisted suicide (PAS) proponents’ claim that suicide can be “rational.” In fact, every jurisdiction in the U.S. compassionately has laws to detain the suicidal person against their will in order to ensure life-saving protection and treatment. Standard protocol and human compassion dictate treating until the suicidal intent is gone.

I have training, expertise, and experience working with suicidal patients, some forced against their will to submit to treatment. When a person is suicidal, they feel unable to control their life and are experiencing significant psychological and spiritual pain. Intense feelings of being a burden, a failure, disconnection, isolation, fear, brokenness, and losing control start to play tricks on their mind. They can be easily manipulated by those with ill intent or be overly sensitive to innocent comments regarding the negative impact their situation is having on others.

The suicidal person experiences psychological pain and desires shortcuts to numb this pain. Callous, insensitive or ignorant people reduce the suicidal person’s value to that of a suffering pet and kill them. But people with compassion, real compassion, recognize the suicidal person’s humanity and the value each person has. They come alongside this person, bear their burden with them, and provide protection, love, hope, connection, value, and purpose. This compassionate response is then coupled with the sound psychiatric evaluation and treatment we, as physicians, have vowed and been trained to deliver to every patient, especially the judgment-compromised suicidal patient.

Suicide, you see, is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Suicidality is a very treatable condition, but severe cases require a holistic spirit-mind-body approach. Depression, post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the trauma of receiving a life-threatening diagnosis, and underlying psychological issues cause suicide. Studies show primary care doctors poorly recognize and treat behavioral health issues, especially in the terminally ill, even though terminally ill patients respond well to treatment. Sadly, in 2014, only 2 percent, and probably less because of poor reporting requirements, of the 155 patients in Oregon who killed themselves under the state’s PAS protocol were referred for psychiatric evaluation.

All of life’s seasons are valuable, especially the last one. In our last days, great relational, spiritual, and psychological richness comes to the individual and loved ones. We have all seen people outlive hospice predictions, be cured, or reconciled with a family member. Don’t rob people by imposing a premature finish line.

I have treated many suicidal patients, who, after being stopped from suicide and appropriately treated, were grateful for the extended and enjoyable life they were blessed to live.  [Ed. – Here, Dr. Benzio provided a descriptive list of patients he has successfully treated.]

Having said all this, if people really want to kill themselves, ultimately that is a choice between them, their Creator, and their loved ones. Killing themselves is logistically easy if that is their desire. I can’t stop them. But, they shouldn’t need to involve anyone in their act, especially a physician, a trained healer who has vowed to not give anyone help to commit suicide. Bringing in another person shows their ambivalence and fear about this tragic decision. PAS ignores the patient’s ambivalence while critically endangering the doctor-patient relationship. It undermines the bedrock trust and accountability society needs to have in the physicians to whom they entrust their lives.

Psychologically, PAS has many dangerous slippery slope effects on our society. We wonder why extreme abuse or tragic mass killings occur more and more frequently. When the top of our society, lawmakers, tasked with being role models in charge of protecting and serving, enact edicts that devalue human life, why are we surprised when our society, and especially the youth, do the same? Bullying, abuse, violence, murder, self-injury like cutting, depression, suicide, and addiction will increase if PAS legislation is passed. In fact, the Oregon suicide rate is now #2 of the 50 states, with an increase of 41% since PAS legislation was enacted there. The increased numbers are non-PAS suicides due to the subliminal message that suicide is an answer and life is not valuable.

PAS is not a new idea; doctors before Hippocrates both cured and killed. The problem was that a patient didn’t know which a physician would do to them. If someone else paid them more, the doctor would kill the patient and no one would be the wiser. Hippocrates realized medicine could not thrive like that, so he required medical students to take an oath before their future colleagues and the community detailing how they would use the powerful knowledge passed on by their teachers. The phrase in the Hippocratic Oath is:

“Nor shall any man’s entreaty prevail upon me to administer poison to anyone; neither will I counsel any man to do so”

Over the next few hundred years, patients voted with their feet and Hippocratic medicine became the standard. It is the foundation on which Western healthcare has grown and prospered. Legalizing physician-assisted suicide would take us back 2,500 years.

I thank you for your time and service and hope my expertise and insights have helped you see readily available safer options can help those in pain continue living rewarding lives. Which society would you like to live in? The society that comes alongside, extending compassion, hope, possibility, connection, and love while showing society we value and prolong a person’s life? Or the society that is cold and callous, treating people like a commodity, terminating them quickly, cheaply, and quietly without documentation, conscience, or accountability? If you are unsure, as a psychiatrist, I implore you, err on the side of caution and safety and protect life when deciding on legislation that has moral, deadly, and long-reaching tentacles.

Thank you,

Karl Benzio, MD
Founder, Executive Director
Lighthouse Network
215-630-8846 c
Addiction and Counseling HELPLINE: 844-Life-Change (844-543-3242)