The Right to Die
Modern medical technology has made it possible to extend the lives of many far beyond when they would have died in the past. Death, in modern times, often ensures a long and painful fall where one loses control both physically and emotionally. Some individuals embrace the time that modern technology buys them; while others find the loss of control overwhelming and frightening. They want their loved ones to remember them as they were not as they have become. Some even elect death to avoid burdens of lingering on. They also seek assistance in doing so from medicine. The demands for assisted suicide and euthanasia are increasing (Kass 17).
These issues raise many questions, legal and ethical. Although neither assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal, many people believe they should be. A great number of those people may never be faced with the decision, but knowing the option would be there is a comfort (Jaret 46). For those who will encounter the situation of loved ones on medication, being treated by physicians, sometimes relying on technical means to stay alive arises a great moral conflict. I wish to explore this topic on ethical, not legal issues.
Do people have a right to choose death? More in particular, are euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide morally legitimate? Euthanasia involves a death that is intended to benefit the person who dies, and requires a final act by some other person, for example, a doctor. Physician-assisted suicide, which requires a final act by the patient, can also be undertaken for the good of that patient. The essential point is that both involve intentionally ending a human life (Emanuel 521).
But how, some ask, can we ever allow people to intentionally end human lives (even their own lives) without degrading human life? How, others ask, can we simply prevent people from deciding when to end their own lives without denying people the freedom so essential to the value of a human life? As these questions suggests, the debate about the right to choose death may appear to present a stand-off between people who endorse life’s true value, and those who think life’s value depends on the interests, judgments, and choices of the person whose life it is.
Through self identification individuals evaluate their own lives and its quality through their own values and belief systems. In order to maintain human dignity, the public has to respect these evaluations and allow individuals to act in accordance to their values. Hence euthanasia should become legalized. The major assumption in this argument is that the individuals are fully
competent and capable of decision making.
The arguments against making euthanasia legal center on two points. The first is the fear that “mercy killing” will open the door to abuse, allowing a way to kill unwanted people. The second is the Hippocratic Oath, Physicians must not kill (Meier 1195). On the other hand, death in three or four days through starvation and dehydration-passive euthanasia, which is both legal and ethical and is a standard way of easing a terminally ill patient out of the world at his or her request is not the most pleasant way to die. Once the decision to allow death has been made between physician, patient, and family, what is the ethical difference between giving a more painless death? Where is the abuse once the decision has been made to permit death to occur under controlled circumstances?
People often ask why is it normal, and completely appropriate, for a veterinarian to put an aged, suffering animal to sleep with a lethal injection but not appropriate for humans. The answer has to be that we are different from animals because we have classified ourselves as such. This creates a problem. A physician can morally, ethically, and legally allow someone to starve to death. This death is going to take place over a few days. Would not that be the time for an instantaneous death by injection? A physician is extending the period of suffering by pulling tubes instead of administering injections.
In some cases it is permissible to knowingly shorten a life by giving-pain relieving medication, such as morphine, with consent, to a terminally ill patient. So killing the patient by giving morphine for pain relief is acceptable, but giving the patient morphine for death is unacceptable. The difference is intending death and foreseeing it. In other cases intending a lesser evil in order to produce a greater good, such as amputating a leg to remove a cancerous tumor, is performed by doctors occasionally. Why is it wrong for doctors sometimes to act against a duty to preserve life in order to relieve pain, just as they could sometimes act against a duty not to intend pain in order to save a life? How can it be wrong to intentionally shorten a life if it will produce the greater good? As an argument for physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, we may cause death as a side effect of medication if it relieves pain. We may intend other lesser evils to the patient, for the sake of greater good. Therefore when death is a lesser evil, it is sometimes permissible for us to intend death in order to stop pain.
If physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia were to become legalized, it could become a final control that a dying patient could have. People who die from a massive heart attack in their sleep are often viewed as lucky because they did not have to undergo a long and painful death, where one loses control of their physical and emotional being. Death and dying in its prolonged state has the ability to take away the patients’ dignity. Euthanasia, for some people, may be seen as a more humane way to die.
Emanuel, Esekiel and linda L. Emanuel, “The promise of a Good Death,” The Lancet, May 16, 1998, v351, n9114, pp521-529.
Meier, Diane E., Carol-Ann Emmons, Sylvan Wallenstein, timothy Quill, Sean Morrison and Christine Cassel, ” A National Survey of Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the United States,” The New England Journal of Medicine, April 23, 1998, v338, n17, pp1193- 1203.
Brock, Dan W., “Palliative Options of Last Resort,” JAMA, December 17, 1997, v178, v23, pp2099-2104.
“Last Rights,” The Economist, June 21, 1997, v343, n8022, pp21-24.
Outerbridge, Daved E. and Alan R. Hersh, M.D., “Easing the Passage,” HarperCollins, New York, NY, 1991.