Exit, an organisation for physician-assisted suicide, has been offering safe and dignified end-of-life care for over 30 years. Dr Andreas Stahel gives an insight into his work as head of the assisted suicide department at Exit
You are a doctor. Doesn’t assisted suicide contradict a doctor’s main duty: to save lives?
A doctor’s main duty is to help people with health problems and to provide the support best suited to the medical condition and situation. Respecting assisted suicide as the last will of people seeking help and accepting their right to make an independent decision and to factor this into medical care is only the final step in the arsenal of empathic medical assistance.
Is there still a lack of this kind of care?
There’s no getting around the fact that many of our members who are willing to die are living into very old age due to the treatment they are receiving on the back of medical progress. These people who are world-weary don’t receive any real help and are left to cope on their own. Doctors are still too unwilling to take responsibility through this final phase of life.
Which misconceptions are common in relation to assisted suicide?
People who choose to die are not cowardly. It’s not about running away from confronting your own suffering. It demands a great deal of determination and self-responsibility. And it’s never a split-second decision.
Has there been a moment that really confirmed that you are doing the right thing?
I was looking after a 90-year-old woman who was still fully fit mentally, but who was physically very frail and was completely dependent on outside help in the nursing home. She said that she had had a long and good life. But now she only felt pain and life had no meaning any more. She hoped every evening would be her last so she wouldn’t have to face another tortuous day again.
What has your work with Exit taught you?
To respect a patient’s well-founded and autonomous last will and to try and understand decisions that are not easy to accept.