It is difficult for most of us to watch someone suffer because of illness or trauma or age especially if that person is a loved one. Being unable to relieve their suffering can leave us feeling helpless. Empathy can make their pain our pain and we just want it to stop.
There are times also when a person might feel they have lost their quality of life due to illness or trauma or age and just wish to end it all. They may feel guilty about burdening those dear to them. Ending their life may seem to be a logical solution or perhaps even the only solution.
Can euthanasia or assisted suicide ever be acceptable in the modern world?
Euthanasia, sometimes called mercy killing, is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the act or practice of killing hopelessly sick or injured individuals in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy (Active Euthanasia); it may also be defined as the act or practice of allowing a hopelessly sick or injured patient to die by taking less than complete medical measures to prolong life. (Passive Euthanasia)Assisted suicide is defined as suicide with help from another person (such as a doctor) to end suffering from severe physical illness.
Those who favor euthanasia may argue that it is a person’s freedom of choice. After all it is their life. They should have this option open to them as a means of ending the suffering now rather than prolonging the agony for weeks or months if there is no hope of recovery. Why burden family and society with unnecessary cost of medical bills if it doesn’t change the outcome?
Those opposed to euthanasia may say that it devalues life. It is morally wrong. It is equivalent to homicide or murder. It can lead to a decline in the quality of medical care because it shifts the focus of doctors and other medical professionals from treating those with chronic illness to ending suffering by means of assisting suicide. What may start out as a means of stopping the suffering of someone with no chance of recovery may very well end in eliminating lives deemed less important, such as the elderly or those with physical disabilities, mental illness. Once euthanasia becomes legal it can bias decisions that need to be made in a life and death situation.
How do we assess the quality of life? At what point does life become “not good enough” to continue? Who gets to determine the standard by which that is measured? Is it a measure of ability to sense pleasure? Would a life that can no longer be enjoyed, bring joy to others, or contribute to the well-being of society meet the measure? Is it measured in degrees of prosperity or status? Is the decline in or loss of physical or mental ability considered a devaluation of life?
Another question that arises is who gets to decide when a life should end? Is it solely the decision of the person who is suffering? What if the person is not capable of making such a decision? Who would be responsible for making the decision on their behalf? Is this a decision society should be making?
In 1984 the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that voluntary euthanasia was acceptable, provided doctors followed strict guidelines. That is, if a patient expressed a wish to die, the physician could euthanize them under the guidelines. In the fall of 2000, the Dutch parliament voted to formally legalize the practice, making the Netherlands the first nation in the world to do so.
The state of Oregon was next. The Oregon Health Plan was established in 1994 and the physician-assisted death law was enacted in 1997. The “Oregon Death With Dignity law” authored in part by the famous Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society and author of "Final Exit," passed in 1998. Humphry is quoted as saying, “Only about 30 people a year choose an assisted death, which must be approved by two doctors. The Oregon Health Plan's approach to coverage is sound. People cling to life and look for every sort of crazy cure to keep alive and usually they are better off not to have done it."
As of 2014, euthanasia (intentionally causing the death of a person) is now legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide (helping a person kill him or herself) is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Albania, Colombia, and Japan and in the US states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico and Montana. Euthanasia was criminalized in Mexico, Thailand, Estonia, the Australian State of Northern Territory and the US State of California.
Those who oppose euthanasia would ask of those who favor euthanasia, whether there is clarity on why, how and to whom euthanasia would be administered? Some interpret euthanasia as the practice of ending a life in a painless manner for those who are in agony and have a short time to live. So then is the only or primary purpose of euthanasia and assisted suicide to alleviate pain and suffering? Should suffering be understood to include both physical and mental?
Are these practices a compassionate advance in the field of medicine as believed by proponents or a decline in the values of modern society as believed by detractors? In part II of this article we will examine some results of euthanasia or assisted suicide in the countries and states that have legalized these practices.
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