Social work lecture explores ethics of physician-assisted suicide

On April 6, Courtney Campbell, a Hundere professor of religion and culture in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Oregon State University, spoke to an audience of social work students and faculty about questions of professionalism and ethics for social workers with regard to assisted suicide.

Courtney Campbell with CHHS Dean Jeff McCubbin on April 6.
Courtney Campbell with CHHS Dean Jeff McCubbin on April 6.

Physician-assisted suicide, which is legal in several states including Oregon, allows a physician to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients.

The timeliness of the issue was highlighted with the acknowledgement that current Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch feels that legally and ethically we should not pursue these types of societal changes.

Campbell framed the discussion by asking the question “Does physician-assisted suicide affect the professional integrity and identity of social workers?”

“Professional fields like social work have a code of ethics,”said Campbell. “You may have personal or professional lines and boundaries that you may feel uncomfortable with.”

The School of Social Work’s generalist program prepares social workers to have a broad knowledge base and skills for practice, as well as practice and behavior that is consistent with the principles and values of the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics.

The ethical issues introduced by Campbell focused on the degree of help offered to patients taking the prescription. “When the patient has to make the decision after the prescription has been filled, about 60 percent do take it,” he stated. “The issue then is should a nurse or doctor be in attendance.”

Campbell presented historical examples of situations that social workers might be faced with in practice. Specifically, he focused on situations in hospice settings, noting that many hospices are

Courtney Campbell is a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University.
Courtney Campbell is a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University.

refusing to support patients in utilizing physician-assisted suicide by developing policies barring nurses from being present.

The questions Campbell presented to students posed several challenges.”Is that too much of an encouragement or a compromise of their professional integrity?” he asked. “Does it condone the action? Does it mean pressuring clients? What about complications?”

Students responded with considerations relevant to social work values that would inform practice, such as self-determination on the part of the patient, the existence of support networks for that patient, and patient advocacy for ensuring access to professional services.

“Social workers get called in at hospices when nurses are removed from the process by hospice rules,” said Campbell. “It’s important to think about these issues because otherwise you become an ancillary or technician, rather than a professional.”

The School of Social Work is part of Colorado State University’s College of Health and Human Sciences.