Euthanasia

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According to the Merriam- Webster dictionary, Euthanasia is simply defined as death or mercy killing (Rowling 179). On the other hand, the dictionary defines suicide as the process through which an individual terminates his or her life intentionally, or the individual who attempts or commits suicide. By extension, assisted suicide may be defined as the act of terminating one’s own life decisively through the assistance of a different person. As such, physician-assisted suicide refers to the act of terminating one’s own life intentionally through the assistance of a physician. Assisted suicide is therefore taken to refer to suicide which occurs when an individual is assisted to terminate his or her own life. In particular, a suicide act is referred to as physician-assisted suicide when the person assisting the individual to die is a doctor.

Nevertheless, in many such cases the person who assists an individual to die is usually a layman such as a friend or a relative who is compassionate with that person’s wish to terminate his or her own life. In many cases of assisted suicide, it is the person who chooses to die who performs the ultimate act that results in his or her death (Yount 4). Even though the preceding definitions seem to lead to an understanding of these terms in an intellectual or scholarly sense, they do not essentially convey the history, controversy and emotions that are attached to them.

Euthanasia may be defined as the act of intentionally killing people who suffer physically, mentally, or emotionally, in order to put an end to their suffering. The death is induced by lethal medications, withholding care, or withholding food and water. Euthanasia is a serious issue, not just because it deals with death, but also because it involves doctors and family members who will decide for their relative’s life in cases where the person is incapable of deciding for themselves. Euthanasia is illegal in most countries around the world, with the exceptions of the state of Oregon, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the Northern Territory of Australia (“Euthanasia” par. 23).  Even though there are very few places where it is legal, the percentage should increase because euthanasia provides relieve to people who are in a vegetative state, people who are in unbearable pain, and those who would like to put an end to personal pain as a way of ending their suffering painlessly.

The Select Committee on Medical Ethics from the House of Lords defines euthanasia as a deliberate intervention which is usually undertaken purposefully to terminate an individual’s life so as to relieve the individual from intractable suffering. Judicially, euthanasia or mercy killing is strictly considered to be a criminal homicide. This is because the judicial definition of the term homicide comprises of any intervention that is undertaken with the purpose of ending an individual’s life even when it is meant to relieve the individual of intractable suffering. In the judicial arena, euthanasia is therefore generally used as a synonym for the term homicide that is carried out as a result of a request that is made by the patient.

Like many other terms that have been borrowed from history, the term euthanasia has often been used by different people to mean different things. This term was originally used by the historian Suetonius to describe how Emperor Augustus was quickly dying in the arms of his wife, Livia, without suffering, and therefore experiencing the euthanasia that he had desired to get. In the medical context, this term was initially used in the seventeenth century by Francis Bacon to refer to a physician’s responsibility to assuage the physical suffering of a patient through assisting him or her to die easily and happily, with little or no pain at all. In his definition, Bacon implied that he was referring to an outward euthanasia. He used the term ‘outward’ to distinguish it from the spirituality concept, which requires the preparation of the patient’s soul (Jennifer 1-5).

In the current dialect, the term euthanasia is used by people to bring out different meanings. Nevertheless, these meanings are related in the context of political persuasion and philosophy. Those who are opposed to the idea of assisted suicide and euthanasia consider it to be wrongful because they look at it as an active causation of an individual’s death by a physician. On the other hand, proponents of euthanasia view it as a way of providing palliative care to the patient as well as alleviating his or her suffering.

Euthanasia may be classified as voluntary, non-voluntary or involuntary depending on whether a patient gives his or her informed consent so that the action that results to his or her death may be carried out (Dowbiggin 48-49). There is an ongoing overheated debate within the fields of medicine and bioethics which seeks to establish whether or not the non-voluntary termination of people’s lives and by extension the involuntary killing of patients should be referred to as euthanasia notwithstanding their circumstances and the intention of killing them. Some definitions of the term euthanasia, such as those offered by Davidson, Beauchamp and Wreen do not consider consent on the part of the patient in their specified criteria for performing euthanasia. Nevertheless, the definitions which are given by other people recognize that the idea of consent is a very vital element. For instance, the task force members of the European Association of Palliative Care (EPAC) of 2003 define any medicalized killing of a patient without his or her consent, whether non-voluntary or involuntary as murder and not euthanasia. According to this definition, euthanasia can only be voluntary.

Voluntary Euthanasia

Voluntary euthanasia may be defined as euthanasia which is conducted only after a patient consent to it. This kind of euthanasia is legal in countries such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium and in some American States such as Washington DC and Oregon. When the patient is assisted by a physician to terminate his or her life, then the term assisted suicide is commonly used instead of euthanasia. In the recent years, physician-assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia have often been the center of controversy in the practice of euthanasia.

Non-voluntary Euthanasia

This form of euthanasia is at times referred to as mercy killing. It is conducted in cases where the explicit consent of the patient is not available. An example is child euthanasia which is universally illegal, but which may otherwise be legitimized under specific circumstances in some countries. For instance, the Netherlands legitimizes it under the Groningen Protocol. A majority of non-voluntary euthanasia which is carried out today occur in the form of continuous deep sedation or terminal sedation of the ill patients. Almost one third of doctors have reported to have made decisions which have hastened the death of a patient at some point in the practice of their profession. In 2006, Len Doyal, a medical ethics professor and a former member of British Medical Association ethics committee said that those who support voluntary euthanasia should also support non-voluntary euthanasia as long as proper regulations are put in place, under appropriate circumstances. This form of euthanasia is different from involuntary euthanasia in the sense that the latter is carried out against the will of the patient.

Involuntary Euthanasia

As aforementioned, this type of euthanasia is performed on a patient against his or her will. This type of euthanasia is also widely opposed since it is regarded by most people as murder. In addition, it is considered to be a criminal offence in legal jurisdictions. Sometimes it is used as the main reason for not changing the laws that are related to other types of euthanasia. Nevertheless, involuntary euthanasia has always received some support throughout history from some pro-euthanasia movements. An example of this scenario occurred in 1937 when a bill that comprised of provisions which supported involuntary euthanasia was anticipated in Nebraska, even though it never went through. In a different scenario of 1943, the Euthanasia Society of America formed a committee which was mandated with the drafting of a bill that would allow for involuntary euthanasia for abnormal people such as congenital monstrosities, idiots and imbeciles (Kathi 97).

It is worth noting that the abovementioned three forms of euthanasia can be classified further using passive and active variants, thus talking of passive euthanasia or active euthanasia. A number of authors however, believe that these terms are ambiguous and unhelpful. Passive euthanasia may be defined as the act of allowing a patient to die through withholding treatments that are essential for life support. Active euthanasia on the other hand entails the undertaking of measures which directly lead to the death of a patient. A patient may use a euthanasia device to carry out active voluntary euthanasia so as to terminate his or her life. 

The controversy which surround euthanasia is basically centered around two different schools of thought. The opponents of these two schools of thought describe euthanasia as either involuntary murders or voluntary suicides. They therefore argue that a widespread policy of euthanasia is equivalent to eugenics. A lot of controversy is centered on whether a specific death is considered as a painless, easy or a happy death, or whether it is considered as a wrongful death. As aforementioned, those who support euthanasia usually argue that a death which increases the suffering of the patient is wrongful, while those who are against it consider any act of causing a deliberate death as wrongful. It is also worth to note that the original meaning of euthanasia brought about the notion of a rightful death which is beyond the natural deaths. In contemporary bioethics, euthanasia remains to be the major area of research.

In the contemporary world, mentioning the word euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide usually elicits a lot of reaction from many people. Just like capital punishment, abortion, and other issues which relate to the termination of human life, euthanasia is an issue that has received so much attention in diverse settings such as in academic discussions, in the media, in politics and in our daily life. Even though it is generally assumed that modern-day perspectives are distinct from historical perspectives, it is clear that the concept of euthanasia has often been, and is still a subject of debate. The only difference is that there is much wider media coverage today on this issue such that people are able to gain more relevant exposure concerning it.

Euthanasia is often considered a controversial issue because of the religious and moral questions it raises. Other questions are raised as well; for example: How can a doctor who studied for many years to learn how to save a person’s life take it away? Also, some people might argue that denying food and water, putting someone through starvation is inhumane and that taking a life is murder. But what if there is no cure, what if the loved one is in so much pain and agony that nothing can take it away? That is when a doctor who studied for such a long time to learn how to save a life should be able to end the patient’s suffering painlessly when no cure is known. The only way to do this is with euthanasia.

The removal of a feeding tube is a method used for patients in a permanent vegetative state (PVS). The word “vegetative” is used because people who are in this condition have a life similar to a plant: they do not move; they do not have a conscious; they continue to have physical changes in their body, but no mental changes because the brain is “dead.”

A case of PVS is the story of Terri Schiavo. She was in a permanent vegetative state for more than 14 years. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, was in favor of taking her life, and stated that Terri wished to never have her life supported by artificial means. While her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, argued that, as a devout Catholic, she would have chosen to live. In the end, the court decided in favor of Schiavo’s husband. Terri died on April 1, 2005, about two weeks after her feeding tube was removed (Hodges 216).

It is necessary to know the difference between a minimally conscious state (MCS) and PVS.  Both of them are related to brain damage, but in PVS the outer part of the brain does not function anymore, so the patient does not interact with the environment and is not able to feel pain, but the base of the brain, which is responsible for the bodily functions such as the digestive system, the ability to move their eyes, and manage to have wake and sleep cycle still works. While in MCS, the patient is still aware of what is going on, so he or she will still suffer from starvation if the feeding tube is removed (Flatow par. 11).

According to Pauline W. Chen, a transplant and cancer surgeon, “when a person is brain-dead he or she still appears alive. The body remains warm and is capable of breathing with the aid of a ventilator. The fact of the matter, however, is that brain death is irreversible. While normal brain tissue is firm, in brain death it softens almost to the consistency of soup” (“Brain Dies” B4).
However, the Catholic Church has openly expressed its disapproval of euthanasia.

Euthanasia is a form of murder and thus is prohibited by the Fifth Commandment. It is a grave offense against the dignity of the human person and also against God, the Author of human life. While motives and circumstances can mitigate one’s culpability, they do not change the nature of this murderous act, which must be forbidden (qtd. in “Faith Facts” par. 3).

Euthanasia cannot be considered a murderous act. The word murder, as it is defined in the dictionary, means “to kill unlawfully, and with malice” (Agnes 418). Euthanasia, on the other hand, gives a person the right to die with dignity, to cease the pain of the patient as well as the patient’s loved ones. At the same time, people are taught by the Church that there is life after death, so why can a person not decide his or her own destiny, such as ending his or her suffering and live an immortal life in paradise?

In addition to cases in which a person is in a vegetative state, euthanasia should also be legalized in cases in which people suffer from unbearable pain. Every human feels pain. Pain can be an excellent teacher. It can make people stronger, help them to handle situations that, before suffering, were so complicated but now are not that bad. Pain can be relieved with pills, surgeries, and sometimes with time and occasional bouts of happiness. But, in many cases, relief cannot be found even over a long period of time, and sometimes happiness cannot be reached because the pain is so strong, so powerful, and so evil that human strength cannot support so much agony. In cases such as these, the quality of life is diminished to such a point that euthanasia is a less painful and quicker way to the inevitable.

Jack Kevorkian, a retired pathologist, is famous for helping his patients end their lives, patients such as Thomas Youk, who suffered from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a terminal condition which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. When tried for murder, Kevorkian argued that it was his “duty” to help suffering people to die. In March 1999, he was convicted for second degree murder, and sentenced to between 10 and 25 years in prison (“Euthanasia” par. 1). While justice condemned Jack Kevorkian, Youk’s wife, Melody Youk, the person that loved him the most said, “my husband had come to the end of his life as he chose to live it" and was "grateful for Kevorkian's help” (“Euthanasia” par. 2).

Finally, euthanasia should be legalized in cases of a person having the right to decide for his or her own life. When God gave humans the present of life, he gave with it the right of free will. With the gift of free will, one can do whatever he or she wants, but it is expected to be used with wisdom and with the objective of reaching happiness without hurting others. In cases in which a person is unable to find happiness because of some condition in his or her life, such as becoming quadriplegic, he or she should be free to use his or her free will to decide to end his or her life.  People who are quadriplegic do not have movement from their neck down, and they are unable to kill themselves without assistance. It is in the best interest of members of society to try to help people in such conditions. They should first try to help this person to see that, even though they are limited, they still have an important role in society and in the lives of their family. But it is also important for members of society put themselves in the place of those who are suffering and respect their decision after efforts have been made to convince the patient to live.

For instance, “Helen X” provides an example of a person’s desire for euthanasia in a special circumstance. Helen had breast cancer, was in a wheel chair for two weeks before her death, and was using oxygen. She lived in the state of Oregon, and, as soon as assisted suicide became legal, she asked her doctor for a lethal prescription. Because she was in no pain, her physician declined her wish, so she saw another physician who also refused. However, she and her husband contacted an organization that supported assisted suicide, and they found a doctor who was willing to give her the lethal medication (“Personal” par. 29).

Doctors have confirmed that brain-damage as severe as that caused by being in a PVS, is irreversible. However, there are cases of recovery, and sometimes the patient can be misdiagnosed. Kate Adamson, for example, was misdiagnosed with PVS. For 70 days she was unresponsive. Doctors decided to remove her feeding tube; however, eight days after the removal of the feeding tube, she began going through starvation, which she described as pure torture, but then she began to respond on her own (Hannity and Colmes par. 9). Her feeding tube was reconnected and she lived to tell her story and write a book.

Cases like this, where the person did not want to die, and had chances of recovering, is a reason why euthanasia should not be permitted. However, such cases as the one stated above are considered really rare, and by some people considered as a miracle, and this small percentage should not be a reason to keep euthanasia illegal.

Euthanasia is not murder and should not be considered an act of going against God. Every human was born to enjoy their family, their achievements and to live his or her dreams. But how can one enjoy his or her family if they cannot recognize them anymore, how can one conquer his or her goals if he or she cannot move, and how can one dream if he or she cannot sleep because of their pain? Death sometimes can heal the pain, not only of the patient but also the ones close to him or her. Euthanasia can do this humanly and painlessly.

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