(RNS)--Diagnosed with cancer of the mouth, the cigar-smoking genius with the larger-than-life ego persuaded his doctor to euthanize him when the time was right.
When Sigmund Freud decided the time was right--16 years after the diagnosis--Dr. Max Schur gave him 21 milligrams of morphine. The father of psychoanalysis, the man who popularized such terms as "id" and "oedipal complex," died within hours.
But the impact of Freud's final exit endures. As Congress grapples with a national anti-suicide bill, Maine prepares for a November referendum on legalizing physician-assisted suicide, and Oregon continues its landmark experiment with doctor-aided death, Freud has emerged as a powerful emblem for the right-to-die movement.
The pro-euthanasia authors of an article published in a medical journal have labeled Freud's 1939 passing "physician-assisted death" and "voluntary active euthanasia." Other, anti-euthanasia physicians argue that Freud's palliative care (treatment designed to minimize pain and suffering but not to cure) would be commended today as appropriate, compassionate, and legal. Either way, the details illustrate an important but often overlooked point in the contemporary political, medical, and moral debate over euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.
Most people, like Freud, choose doctor-aided death not to avoid pain but to exert autonomy. This truth is confirmed in studies from the Netherlands, the only country where euthanasia is allowed nationwide, and from Oregon, the only U.S. state to legalize physician-assisted suicide.
Yet as the U.S. Senate responds to Oregon's assisted-suicide law with the so-called Pain Relief Promotion Act, pain--not autonomy--remains center stage. The bill would ban use of federally controlled substances, such as barbiturates and morphine, in assisted suicides. It overwhelmingly passed the House last October and awaits action in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Freud knew pain. It came with the malignant oral epithelioma that was first diagnosed in 1923, a consequence of the cigars he could never give up, the cigars he believed made him more creative and productive. Freud had to use crude prostheses to talk and eat, and he dealt with the pain of more than 30 surgical procedures. He also endured repeated primitive X-rays and radium therapy.
Yet in the years from diagnosis to death, he wrote 20 books and scientific articles as he directed the international development of psychoanalysis. "Based on Schur's writings, reading between the lines, I think the reason Freud chose this type of death was control," says Dr. Jack McCue, the co-author, with Dr. Lewis Cohen, of "Freud's Physician-Assisted Death," which was published last year in the Archives of Internal Medicine. "He really was a control freak, so it's not surprising he would want to control his own death. He desired and achieved a reconciled death, what he would consider a good death."
McCue, a former member of the pro-euthanasia Hemlock Society, continues: "I don't fear pain. I fear dependency. I fear the humiliation of losing my wholeness as an adult. I can relieve pain, but what I don't want to do is waste away, losing control of my bladder and my bowels, having to rely on people to take care of me when I have no future.
"I want the most graceful exit possible, and I think that's what most people want."
They want it in increasing numbers. In 1947, when a Gallup survey asked Americans if the law should allow doctors to end the lives of terminally ill patients who request such assistance, 37 percent said yes and 54 percent said no. In 1999, 61 percent said yes and 35 percent said no, revealing a significant historical shift.
In February, an article in The New England Journal of Medicine examined an Oregon Health Division study of the 33 people who requested and received lethal medications in 1999. The article came to an emphatic conclusion: "The patients requested assistance with suicide because of concern about loss of autonomy and control of bodily functions, not because of concern about inadequate control of pain."
Widespread support for euthanasia depends on belief in autonomy, a value summarized in the United States as "my body, my choice." The word comes from the Greek "auto" (self) and "nomos" (law). "Personal autonomy" suggests a person who is a law unto himself. That describes Freud, who "gives us a model of modern autonomy," says Harold Vanderpool, a professor of the history and philosophy of medicine at the University of Texas medical branch in Galveston.