Motivations for Physician-assisted Suicide

Patient and Family Voices


  • None of the authors has any financial or other conflicts of interest with respect to this work.

  • This manuscript was presented in part at the 24th annual meeting of the Society of General Internal Medicine, May 2001.

Address correspondence and requests for reprints to Dr. Pearlman: VA Puget Sound Health Care System, 1660 S. Columbian Way (S-182-GRECC), Seattle, WA 98108 (e-mail:


Objective: To obtain detailed narrative accounts of patients' motivations for pursuing physician-assisted suicide (PAS).

Design: Longitudinal case studies.

Participants: Sixty individuals discussed 35 cases. Participants were recruited through advocacy organizations that counsel individuals interested in PAS, as well as hospices and grief counselors.

Setting: Participants' homes.

Measurements And Results: We conducted a content analysis of 159 semistructured interviews with patients and their family members, and family members of deceased patients, to characterize the issues associated with pursuit of PAS. Most patients deliberated about PAS over considerable lengths of time with repeated assessments of the benefits and burdens of their current experience. Most patients were motivated to engage in PAS due to illness-related experiences (e.g., fatigue, functional losses), a loss of their sense of self, and fears about the future. None of the patients were acutely depressed when planning PAS.

Conclusions: Patients in this study engaged in PAS after a deliberative and thoughtful process. These motivating issues point to the importance of a broad approach in responding to a patient's request for PAS. The factors that motivate PAS can serve as an outline of issues to explore with patients about the far-reaching effects of illness, including the quality of the dying experience. The factors also identify challenges for quality palliative care: assessing patients holistically, conducting repeated assessments of patients' concerns over time, and tailoring care accordingly.