Would Legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide Endanger Women?



PRO (yes)

Susan Wolf, JD, McKnight Presidential Professor of Law for Medicine & Public Policy at the University of Minnesota, wrote in her chapter "Gender, Feminism, and Death: Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia," that appeared in the 1996 book Feminism and Bioethics:

"Women in America still live in a society marred by sexism, a society that particularly disvalues women with illness, disability, or merely advanced age. It would be hard to explain if health care, suicide, and fundamental dimensions of American society showed marked differences by gender, but gender suddenly dropped out of the equation when people became desperate enough to seek a physician's help in ending their lives...

Gender differences may translate into women seeking physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia for somewhat different reasons than men. Problems we know to be correlated with gender--difficulty getting good medical care generally, poor pain relief, a higher incidence of depression, and a higher rate of poverty--may figure more prominently in women's motivation. Society's persisting sexism may figure as well. And the long history of valorizing women's self-sacrifice may be expressed in women's requesting assisted suicide or euthanasia...

To institute physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia at this point in this country--in which many millions are denied the resources to cope with serious illnes, in which pain relief and palliative care are by all accounts woefully mishandled, and in which we have a long way to go to make proclaimed rights to refuse life-sustaining treatment and to use advance directives working realities in clinical settings--seems, at the very least, to be premature...

Against those background conditions, legitimating the practices is more than just premature. It is a danger to women. Those background conditions pose special problems for them. Women in this country are differentially poorer, more likely to be either uninsured or on government entitlement programs, more likely to be alone in their old age, and more susceptible to depression. Those facts alone would spell danger. But when you combine them with the long (indeed, ancient) history of legitimating the sacrifice and self-sacrifice of women, the danger intensifies. That history suggests that a woman requesting assisted suicide or euthanasia is likely to be seen as doing the 'right' thing. She will fit into unspoken cultural stereotypes. She may even be valorized for appropriate feminine self-sacrificing behavior, such as sparing her family further burden or the sight of an unaesthetic deterioration. Thus she may be subtly encouraged to seek death. At the least, her physician may have a difficult time seeing past the legitimating stereotypes and valorization to explore what is relaly going on with this particular patient, why she is so desperate, and what can be done about it."

1996 - Susan Wolf, JD 



Sidney Callahan, PhD, the McKeever Chair in Moral Theology at St. John’s University of Queens, New York, wrote in her Sep. 1, 1995 article "A Feminist Cast Against Self-Determined Dying in Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia," that appeared in Studies in Prolife Feminism:

"Women are going to be more affected by the euthanasia debate than men, simply by virtue of the fact that women live longer than men, and in their old age command fewer financial and social resources. In a sexist society that also suffers from ageism or prejudice and discrimination against the old, more women will end up living alone as fragile persons in need of care. As families become smaller and more dispersed, many women, particularly single childless women, will not have nearby kin who can care for them or serve as their advocates within increasingly complex health-care systems.

By and large, women still have been socialized to be less assertive than men, and have less of a sense of entitlement when dealing with mostly male authority systems. And in their turn, authority systems are more likely to discount women's voices. According to some disturbing studies of gender disparities in the legal and medical system, women's medical treatment preferences were more often ignored... Old women will bear the brunt of any inadequacies in the system our society devises for the fragile old at the end of life. Feminists have long recognized the double standard of aging and are open to the worry that there may be a double standard of dying...

In our own disorganized, economically stressed, market-driven American health system, with so many of the poor having inadequate health insurance, many abuses could be expected. Little legal supervision or regulation could really be effective. Physician education, with its technologically driven training, does not prepare doctors to be strong in communication skills or social sensitivity. Certain physicians would undoubtedly become known for the ease with which they approved suicide and euthanasia requests, and perhaps, as with abortion, special for-profit clinics would be set up. Poor and uninsured old persons -- particularly women, minorities and the handicapped -- would be most at risk...

Ideals of individual domination and control of life have backfired in our society. Feminists have mounted a critique and reappraisal of our troubles. Feminist ideals of inclusive justice, caretaking and the interconnectedness of all the living require that we struggle against approving assisted suicide and euthanasia. Let there be no more recruits for the armies of domination and death."

Sep. 1, 1995 - Sidney Callahan, PhD 



CON (no)

Jennifer Parks, PhD, Co-Director for Programs in Health Care Ethics at Loyola University of Chicago, wrote in her 2000 article "Why Gender Matters to the Euthanasia Debate," that appeared in an issue of the Hastings Center Report:

"It is imperative that a feminist account of euthanasia consider the feminine ethic of care to which women have been held, an ethic that requires women's unselfish commitment to the nurturance and care of others, especially their husbands, children, and elderly parents. The imperative to care for others--to the point of giving up their sense of self completely--encourages people to dismiss women's self-concerns, and it makes society less willing to consider euthanasia for women...

For if women are expected to be deferential to others, self-effacing, and caring to the point of sacrificing their own happiness, then any self-interested and self-directed claims they make (in this case, the request to die) may be more easily discounted or dismissed as irrational. A woman's capacity for reason and self-determination is not validated in our culture (since women have been historically viewed as emotional, not rational, beings); the presence of severe pain or terminal illness may be used as further support for the view that women are particularly incompetent when it comes to making even deeply personal life and death decisions...

What the Kevorkian deaths indicate is not that women in particular are at a high risk of being put to death, but that social conditions for a socially accepted, dignified death through physician-assisted suicide or active euthanasia do not obtain, either at home or in care facilities. Kevorkian's practice does not provide evidence of a widespread social bias in favor of killing women; rather, his actions are witness to the sad position into which both women and men who are seeking death are placed...

It is not clear that women are more likely than men to be euthananized or extended the means for physician-assisted suicide. Indeed, there is reason to think, and statistical evidence to support the thought, that women are far less likely to be taken seriously, listened to, and supported in their end of life choices than are their male counterparts."

2000 - Jennifer Parks, PhD 



Diane Raymond, PhD, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Simmons College, wrote in her Spring 1999 article "'Fatal Practices': A Feminist Analysis of Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia," that appeared in Hypatia:

"The gender ideology fleshed out in Wolf's analysis may lead, as suggested earlier, to great reluctance, not eagerness, to allow PAS [physician-assisted suicide] or euthanasia for women. Indeed, some evidence suggests that if there is any gendered difference in end-of-life treatments, it is that men are undertreated and women are overtreated...

Wolf clearly seems committed to the view that in our current climate protective guidelines cannot be formulated and/or enforced; I believe, however, that feminists ought not to be overly hasty in rejecting such a possibility. Even separate from new statutes, creative legal modifications or reappropriations of our current system might be considered...

A blanket prohibition against euthanasia, while clear and easy to maintain, seems to me inconsistent with feminism's rejection of rigid absolutism and its embracing of context and ambiguity."

Spring 1999 - Diane Raymond, PhD 



Dena Davis, JD, PhD, Professor of Law at Cleavland State University, wrote in her chapter "Why Suicide Is Like Contraception: A Women-Centered View," that appeared in the 1998 book Physician-Assisted Suicide: Expanding the Debate:

"Most (not all) feminists have long argued that, in the context of abortion, their right to control over their bodies and over the shape of their future lives is supreme... If we insist that we can and must be trusted with the power to decide whether or not to destroy a potential human life, how can we not insist on the right to be trusted with the decision whether or not to end our own?...

One of the principal ways in which women have been oppressed in our society is the identification of women with that which is 'natural,' and the demand that women simply accept rather than control their fertility...

Feminist commitment to a 'non-natural' controlled approach to our fertility suggests what ought to be our approach to end-of-life decisions as well...

One could argue that those who oppose rational suicide are asking women to shoulder yet another traditional female burden: the preservation of society's moral and religious values. The stereotypical virtues assigned to Victorian women of 'piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity,' which rightly disturb Wolf, can as easily be harnessed by traditionalists to argue against suicide as for it...

It is, of course, often a valid argument that the interests of the individual must give way to the good of society as a whole... But if we are to make this sort of argument, then let us be honest about it: People are being required to forgo their own interests (and individual values) for the good of society as a whole. Women, who historically have suffered the brunt of that sort of reasoning, and who have special reasons for avoiding the indignity and dependence of being demented, pain-wracked, and bedridden, may decide that it is not worth the price."

1998 - Dena Davis, JD, PhD