Please don’t allow me to kill people: an open letter to Scott Adams

(Last Saturday, Scott Adams, the creator of the brilliant comic strip “Dilbert,” wrote in his blog a raw piece about physician-assisted suicide, which has created something of a stir. If you wish to read it, it is here; but I warn you, it is not pleasant reading, and it is full of profanity.)

Mr. Adams,

My deepest, deepest condolences. I don’t know you, but I am a Family Physician, and I have stood more times than I can count at the bedsides of people going through situations similar to your father’s. I have sat in too many rooms with families as their loved ones have withered away; too many times, I have been unable to offer healing, but only comfort, support, presence, and respect for the dying and his or her family.

Please don’t ask me to offer more than that. I know your blog post was written in the midst of “hideous unpleasantness,” and I can pardon your wish for me to die a slow, horrible death because I am opposed to using my power to kill people. But such extreme frustration, grief, and anger as you are experiencing is not in itself an argument for giving one class of people the right to kill others.

A long time ago, we doctors did kill people. We with the power to heal have always had the power to kill, and at one time we were allowed to use both powers indiscriminately. We were salesmen, technicians, offering whatever the customer wanted, whatever the market would bear.

But then someone, or maybe it was a group of people, who assumed the name “Hippocrates,” came out and said, “No more. We will not use our power to kill people. We know that Power can be used for good. But Power by its very existence begs to be used, and it knows no distinction between good and bad uses. We are well-meaning, but we know we are flawed. Therefore, we will place the most stringent restraints we know on our Power: we will not use our Power for killing.” And it was at that moment that we stopped being technicians and became Professionals.

But our record isn’t perfect. As recently as the middle of the last century some of our number in Germany thought we could safely use our Power to kill for beneficial purposes. And more recently, our colleagues in a few European countries — and now a few of our own states — have been given the go-ahead to use our Power (oh, so much greater now than in Hippocrates’ time) for just the purpose you advocate: to actively end a person’s life. And I must gently dispute your assertion that such policies are working “with little problems.” On the contrary, the problems those policies are facing are huge ones.

So please, don’t ask the government to give me the power to kill. I am human, like you, and, even with the best of intentions, I can’t properly handle such power. You can ask me not to abandon my dying patients. You can ask me to sit at my dying patients’ bedsides and weep at their funerals. You can ask me to do whatever I can to help their families. You can ask me to stop using unwelcome powers of healing that serve no other purpose to keep bodily functions going, and I will gladly comply; and I will use every bit of power within my reach to help alleviate pain, short of killing the sufferer. I will do it all in “com + passion,” which literally means “suffering with.”

But please don’t ask me to end suffering by using my Power to do away with the sufferer. Because there are just some things a Doctor shouldn’t do.


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Susan Haack
Susan Haack
7 years ago

I have been out of the country for a few weeks, Joe, and so am behind in my emails, but I thank you for this post, especially the reminder to all that as fallen humans we cannot handle the powers of life and death–especially death. In this fallen world where we daily see the consequences of unbridled power of death portrayed, it seems to me a very powerful yet simple argument that I will use.