One of the lesser-reported items arising from the 11th Annual Conference of AIDS in Vancouver is the growing tendency of AIDS patients to commit suicide to end their suffering.

According to papers resented at the July conference, many doctors treating AIDS patients appear increasingly willing to help them end their lives.

Despite prohibitions against physician assisted suicide in most countries, doctors and nurses seem willing to ignore the law when dealing with AIDS patients.

Reports filed from the United States, Canada, England and the Netherlands said suicide is a common escape for increasing numbers of AIDS patients. “We suspect attitudes are changing,” Thomas Mitchell of the University of San Francisco told the Associated Press. “Physicians are accepting assisted suicide more than in the past.”

Mitchell, a public health specialist, surveyed San Francisco area doctors to determine their attitude regarding euthanasia. More than half said they had helped AIDS patients commit suicide by prescribing narcotic overdoses.

“Everyone knows this occurs, but there has been no quantifiable data on it,” Mitchell said.

His research backs up earlier studies which indicated that three out of ten doctors would likely assist an AIDS patient end his or her life.

Breakthrough on horizon?

The willingness of some AIDS patients to embrace suicide as a release from their suffering comes despite evidence of possible medical breakthroughs in treating the terminal disease. The research, involving combinations of new drugs, has encouraged many AIDS researchers.

Nonetheless there is no evidence the positive results will hold up over the next few years. Some AIDS patients aren’t willing to wait and the temptation to seek physician-assisted death is tempting for many.

While doctors debate the merits of helping terminally ill AIDS patients commit suicide, a Dutch doctor at the Vancouver conference said it is a question of grace and mercy to spare AIDS patient’s undue suffering.

Dr. Henk-Maarten Lane said it is “a privilege” to assist in the suicide of AIDS patients, who might otherwise pass their final weeks in extreme suffering and degradation.

“You can offer a very gentle death, surrounded by relatives, friends, and family. “Dr. Lane told The Globe and Mail. He said it’s best to meet with AIDS patients shortly after they have been diagnosed with the disease. He said this gives patients a better opportunity to consider their options.

“When there is no stress in the earlier stage, patients can quietly think it over,” he said.

Dr. Lane then consults with a second doctor, advises the local prosecutor and has the patient sign a release form. At the chosen time, Lane provides the patient with a lethal dose of sleeping pills.

“It’s like normal sleep, deeper and deeper,” he said.

The apparent willingness of AIDS patients to seek suicide is of concern to the pro-life supporters who believe greater efforts should be made in the areas of pain management and palliative care.

Although pro-life groups do not support the use of extraordinary means to keep terminally ill patients alive, they fear a growing demand to legalize doctor assisted suicide as a reckless, convenient answer to a complex ethical question.

The conference was marred by the actions of a large group of AIDS activists who attempted to hijack proceedings to draw attention to what they see as a lack of government funding for AIDS research.

Their behaviour did little to win any public sympathy, especially when it was noted that AIDS already receives a higher proportion of research funding than many other longstanding diseases.