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Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide, Essay Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1207

Essay

Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide: Debating the Rights of Terminally Ill Patients in Healthcare

One of the most controversial debates that have continuously rocked the medical profession is the justification or rejection of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. In the quest for legal, ethical and moral grounds for either position, commentators on the debate occasionally point to historical developments in the subject as a context for arguing out their views.  For instance, there are references to ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, where people sought death as an end to the miserable, endless agony of enduring pain and suffering. A notable example is that of Zeno, the Stoic founder who committed suicide in old age to escape the pain of an incurable foot injury (qtd in Emmanuel 99). However, ancient Rome and Greece present little relevance to the modern world, where advancements in science and medicine in the late 20th century improved the quality of healthcare services. As such, euthanasia or assisted suicide does not offer automatic solutions to terminal diseases. Consequently, there are those who hold the view that science should promote the restoration of health and sustenance of human life regardless the patient’s condition. In addition, life is sacred and as such, should not be interfered with by all means. This essay examines the arguments advanced by the opponents and proponents of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide as they relate to the life and rights of terminally ill patients.

In “The History of Euthanasia Debates in the United States and Britain,” Ezekiel J. Emmanuel argues that there is really nothing new in the euthanasia debate: people always give the same old reasons to justify it. Like ancient Greeks, its proponents charge that it agrees with people’s fundamental right of self-determination. Accordingly, individuals are at liberty to decide their destinies. Secondly, its objective is to relief the patient from unnecessary pain. In this light, then, physicians and family members acting on the power of attorney only do so in the best interests of the patient. They argue form the consequentialist perspective of moral ethics, in that euthanasia/physician assisted suicide do more good than harm (ending pain) as opposed to letting the patient suffer until he/she dies. In countering the argument by pro-life pundits that life is sacred and therefore should not be terminated at all costs, they observe that life is sacred only to the extent it is meaningful to the individual. As such, life should offer joy and happiness to an individual for its existence to be reasonably justified. But in the event it becomes a perpetual experience of pain and suffering, the individual’s right to escape such meaningless existence should not be violated. Quoting from Eugene Debs and Dr. Killick Millard, the pioneers of patients’ right to euthanasia and assisted suicide during the early 20th century, he states that: it ought to be the privilege of every human being to cross the River Styx in the boat of his own choosing, when further human agony cannot be justified by the hope of future health and happiness (qtd in Emmanuel 106).

Thus, they propose, individuals who suffer from a fatal and incurable illness that would only lead to a slow, painful death should be allowed by law-should it be their desire- to seek a quick and painless death instead of the agonizingly slow and painful one. It is not about mercy, they assert, but about respecting an elementary human right. It is equally an act of humanity, and not merely a moral right, to help victims avoid unnecessary excruciating pain when it is evident that death is inevitable.

On his part, Michael Panicola argues that religion is perhaps the greatest obstacle to the so-called right to end one’s life with the help of a physician, or for the exercising of power of attorney by family members in deciding the fate of a terminally ill patient. In an essay “Catholic Teaching on Prolonging Life: Setting the Record Straight,” Panicola highlights the role that the church plays in halting the pace at which euthanasia is finding support in legal and medical circles. Notable is the church’s position on prolonging the life of terminally ill patients with medically assisted nutrition and hydration. This is a common medical prescription for patients who succumb into a persistent vegetative state (PVS), which is characterized by loss of all higher brain functions. Patients become completely unaware of themselves and their environment, and therefore unable to interact with others. However, lower brain functioning such as reflex responses are not damaged, thus ending the life of such patients by removing life sustaining machines would be a blatant attack on life. The argument is that removing the patient’s feeding tube “would be the real cause of death and not their underlying medical condition” (Panicola 10). Only God and not doctors on grounds of their professional training or relatives on account of power of attorney, the church asserts, should decide the fate of terminally ill patients.

In “The Oregon Report: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Kathleen Foley and Herbert Hendin observe that some proponents of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide downplay the unethical and illegal aspects of ending someone’s life through euphemism (using a softer term to describe the act) such as the Oregon Health Division’s “Death with Dignity Act.” Under this act, the practice is justified by claims that patients receive “adequate end-of life care” before undergoing assisted suicide. However, Foley and Herbert argue, “we know nothing of the psychological, physical and existential needs of the patients requesting assisted suicide” (Foley and Herbert 63). Similarly, there is little knowledge on the capabilities of the physicians involved and the living conditions of the victims, as well as the background context within which decisions are made.  They observe that some of the cases that the OHD used involved patients with other personal life problems that could have encouraged their suicide intentions.  For instance, most of those who chose assisted suicide were either single or were likely to be divorced in future. Thus, they conclude, there are concerns as to whether proponents of physician assisted suicide used flawed data to support their cause.

Nevertheless, regardless which side presents more convincing arguments than the other, neutrals will realize that each side has more than enough ammunition to support their cause. While opponents of euthanasia tend to seek a higher moral ground to better advance their pro-life arguments, proponents seem to point to the limitations of science and the reality of death as justifications for ending the lives of hopelessly, terminally ill patients. It seems, then, that as long as death is a reality and there are a few optimists, the debate on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is far from over.

Works Cited

Emmanuel, Ezekiel J. “The History of Euthanasia Debates in the United States and Britain.” In Shannon, Thomas, A. (Ed.). Death and dying: A Reader. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

Foley, Kathleen, and Hendin, Herbert. “The Oregon Report: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In Shannon, Thomas, A. (Ed.). Death and dying: A Reader. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

Great Britain Parliament, et al. Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill (HL). London: The Stationery Office, 2005

Panicola, Michael. “Catholic Teaching on Prolonging Life: Setting the Record Straight.” In Shannon, Thomas, A. (Ed.). Death and dying: A Reader. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

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