Bioethics Forum Essay
Physician-Assisted Death and Journalism Ethics
Two years ago, I raised concerns about a front-page New York Times article describing a case of physician-assisted death in Canada. “It seems significant that the New York Times—an arbiter of culture—devoted an extraordinary amount of attention to a planned, physician-assisted death and the rituals associated with it,” I wrote in Bioethics Forum. “There is a human interest story here, but the article had scant discussion of the ethical and policy issues raised by Canada’s form of legalized medical assistance in dying.” The Times took a giant step forward in its problematic coverage of physician-assisted death by publishing, on December 8, a remarkable 45-page special report that vividly documents the physician-performed euthanasia of Marieke Vervoort—a disabled Belgian woman who was a Paralympics champion.
Most of the special report consists of gripping color photos, including a two-page photo showing Dr. Wims Distelmans administering a lethal injection to Vervoort, with family and friends present at her bedside. The few pages of text describe Vervoort’s life, her suffering from pain, and other symptoms that eventually became intolerable, and her decision to seek physician-assisted death.
Why did the New York Times decide to produce and publish this special report? Did the paper intend to promote physician-performed euthanasia in the United States and other countries around the world, expanding access to this life-ending physician practice beyond Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada, where it is legal? While the special report noted that Dr. Distelmans is “the leading advocate for euthanasia in Belgium,” it included no discussion of ethical or policy issues concerning the controversial and contested practice of physician-assisted death. In particular, there was no discussion of whether it is ethical for a physician to intentionally end the life of a suffering patient in response to her voluntary request by means of administering a lethal injection, nor whether a legal option of physician-assisted death should be available for patients who are not terminally ill, as in the case of Marieke Vervoort. No mention was made of the alternative option legally available to suffering individuals to end their lives by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking—a practice that does not involve physicians causing death, which has received attention in medical journals and increasingly in the news media.
Whether or not this special report was intended to promote physician-assisted death, it failed as an exercise of responsible journalism. It ought to be the mission of the news media to educate the public regarding arguments for and against controversial practices, especially when a prestigious newspaper draws attention to a practice such as physician-assisted death in a special report. The New York Times may legitimately choose to advocate for a legal option of physician-assisted death; however, that belongs in an editorial accompanied by reasoned argument, which at least attempts to do justice to competing ethical and policy considerations. I contend that publishing such a visually powerful special report, structured as a human interest story and absent any attention to ethical and policy issues, violates journalistic ethics.
Franklin G. Miller, PhD, a Hastings Center Fellow, is a professor of medical ethics in medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.