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The Other Side of Human Rights: Euthanasia, Essay Example

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Introduction

In the arena of controversies affecting humanity, euthanasia remains a hotly contested issue, as much so today as it has been in the past.  This is hardly unexpected; the subject centers upon the most fundamental feelings regarding life, faith, and free will within individuals and societies.  It is both deeply personal and profoundly cultural, and historically the debate has been between those insisting on individual rights to choose to end life when life is unbearable, and those who believe that such decisions exceed the boundaries of any human prerogative.  Nor has opposition been confined to those objecting from faith-based reasoning; in the first half of the 20th century in the United States, for example, the bulk of medical community was violently opposed to euthanasia because it suggested weaknesses on the power of physicians to address serious illness.  Linked to this resistance was that, in this cultural climate of fierce isolationist feeling, it was widely felt that euthanasia was a symptom of socialized medicine, and evocative of communist ideologies (Dowbiggin  99).  In one form or another, then, the issue has raged, as it generates great controversy still.  This debate, in fact, is exacerbated by medical advances that prolong lives which, in eras past, could not be sustained (Biggs 9).  Ultimately, however, one stance must be acknowledged as dominant, as it addresses concerns of both support and opposition.  Euthanasia, properly regulated and humanely maintained, protects all the rights of the individual, including the irrefutable one of accommodating individual faith, or relationship with God.

Arguments: Opposition and Support

When there are outspoken objections to legalized euthanasia, it is inevitable that issues of faith be a part of them.  For those who believe in a divine authority, the human decision to terminate life, even under the most painful and/or hopeless of conditions, is an act of sacrilege; simply, it is felt that this is not a choice within the purview of human beings, but the will of God.

However, it is important to note that the primary religious resistance to euthanasia, and during the bulk of the 20th century, derived from the Catholic Church.  More moderate views were increasingly forthcoming from other faiths, but the sheer size and demographic weight of the Catholic community in these years was so enormous, euthanasia became a symbol of the divisions between this population and the rising American Liberals (Dowbiggin 101).  This still exists today, basically because devout Catholics are unable to modify the views built into the faith.  Interestingly, however, while religious beliefs are typically seen as fueling opposition to euthanasia, there is an interesting type of scale at play in this particular arena.  More exactly, even as correlations have been documented between intense religious feeling and similar levels of objection to the practice, there is nonetheless extensive support for euthanasia among all religious communities, depending upon each case’s circumstance.  Generally, when physicians feel that euthanasia is called for and it is the patient’s voluntary choice, the evidence is that over 50 percent of Catholics, Jews, and Protestants do not dispute it (Hood, Hill, & Spilka  195).

Further opposition often takes a more clinical form, in that it is felt that, as medical science advances, it is premature to end a life that may be saved by new procedures soon to be developed.  It is argued that, as modern abilities revive or sustain patients who would have died prior to these advances, so too will imminent procedures alter current “hopeless” scenarios (Biggs 16).  This point of view is refuted by the simple fact that such cures are unforeseeable, and cannot be relied upon to ethically deny individuals the right to end suffering with no reasonable end in sight.  It also is weakened by the irony inherent in much medical evolution; namely, interest in euthanasia has grown very much because technology sustains life under previously fatal conditions (Emanuel  198).  If we can now prolong life in the face of intense disease and/or brain damage, we are all the more obligated to question the quality of life, and particularly when the patient does not believe that the life should continue.

With regard to faith-based concerns, just as religion has established opposition, religion has also fostered support for euthanasia.  More exactly, as Unitarian sects developed in the U.S., ideologies of free will, the ultimate benevolence of God, and an emphasis on mankind’s innate dignity and right to choose combined to refute both strict Puritan and Catholic views, and from the 18th century on (Dowbiggin  58).  The momentum has not abated.  In simple terms, it seems to devolve on just how each religious person interprets the will of God, as either promoting human free choice or denying it in this arena.  Consequently, supporters of euthanasia are by no means “anti-religion”; rather, they elect to interpret their faith as one acknowledging that God’s will encompasses human will, and that it is in the interests of observing faith to end the suffering of the terminally ill, or the person in the vegetative state due to brain damage.  In this view, that such an individual chooses death is also a manner of covenant between themselves and their own beliefs, or God, and it is improper for others to intervene.

Personal Viewpoint and Reasoning

It seems to me highly unfortunate that many who oppose euthanasia express the view that those supporting the legalization of it are “pro-death,” or somehow eager to end human life when any indication of severe illness is present.  This dramatically demeans the core of support for euthanasia, for no rational person could perceive the subject as anything but a dire and radical solution to a painful, and otherwise insoluble, problem.  Moreover, it ignore the most critical factor in any euthanasia case, that of the patient’s choice.  It is sometime put forth that people, undergoing extreme pain or facing terminal illness are inherently unable to make such a decision, simply because their circumstances blind them to reason.  In my estimation, however, no one is better positioned to decide the issue, and for several reasons.  First of all, it is likely that the patient has the most keen awareness of everything related to their case.  Not only are they the victims of the disease or circumstance, but they are also informed by physicians of the exact realities of it.  Secondly, “reason,” as generally perceived, must take on a different component here because we are in an arena wherein traditional reasoning cannot apply.  The subject is life itself, so it is inevitable that profoundly emotional factors contribute to the entire process of decision-making; citing such choices as “irrational,” then, ignores the basic nature of the choices and the reasons for them.

Even more emphatically, however, I maintain that faith-based objections to euthanasia are intrinsically suspect.  More exactly, any such objections must be based on religious form, rather than on actual faith, because the latter belongs completely to the individual in question.  What occurs is that religious opponents see euthanasia as a violation of a protocol of the faith, because any further evaluation of it in this area translates to an unconscionable claim to comprehending either the will of God or the patient’s relationship with God.  It may be understandable that, for instance, devout Catholics view the rules of the church as synonymous with the faith underlying them.  Nonetheless, that same Church also insists upon, and quite rightly, the impossibility of mankind’s attempting to know the true purpose of God.  In Catholicism, it is humanity’s fallibility that is a mainstay, and the mere fact that scripture itself has fueled endless debates between Catholics is evidence that the “laws” are subject to interpretation.

Finally, I hold that euthanasia, as regrettable a measure as it is, is the ultimate expression of human free will.  In enlightened cultures, there is a consistent emphasis on basic, or natural, rights as belonging to people and as reflected in government as much as is possible.  Foremost among these is the right to life, and this translates to complete ownership, or authority over, that life of the individual.  In evolved societies, no human being or agency has the right to direct the course of another life, against that individual’s will; to oppose euthanasia, then, is to place limits on this most fundamental right of all.  To support euthanasia is not to encourage it, but rather to accept, as we must, that all people have the ultimate authority over their own existences.  We are entitled to regret their choices, but we are not entitled to deny them legally.

Counter-Argument

It is likely that my views would be countered by the belief that they ignore basic realities, or potentials, inevitable to legalizing euthanasia.  Voluntary euthanasia, in which both patient and doctor decide on the action, may very well give rise to involuntary euthanasia, in which the physician determines the appropriateness of the death.   Terminally ill and severely brain-damaged people, after all, do not exist in a vacuum.  They are, pragmatically speaking, enormous drains on community and family resources, as well as causes of great conflict and pain to those near them.  Consequently, and a convenient emphasis on not encouraging euthanasia notwithstanding, it is entirely possible that these decisions will become choices made for the ease of others.  This relates to another refutation, in that no external person or agency may properly determine quality of life. If, as supporters of euthanasia claim, that choice ultimately belongs to the patient, then any assisting physician is overstepping his rights.  Assisting in euthanasia is a concrete action, which translates to the assistant having reached a conclusion regarding quality of life as well.  Ethically, the formula cannot work.

Response

Such concerns are valid, certainly in that they reflect a necessary degree of care regarding any such procedure.  At the same time, however, the argument that choice will be removed from the patient ignores an essential process virtually demanded by all those in support of euthanasia; namely, that legal and ethical boundaries be in place for each circumstance.  Supporters typically insist, not only on voluntary choices made by patients, but on repeated such choices, and with due time for reflection and to receive counseling.  Then, no supporter would approve of a blanket permission, with no legal and medical standards attached.  These are in place, in fact, in nations allowing euthanasia.  For example, just as a patient has the right to request euthanasia in the Netherlands, so too does each physician have the right to refuse assisting in it (Keown  91).  However it happens, no case of euthanasia can be conducted without extensive care and analysis, and a consistent desire on the part of the patient.

With regard to the quality of life point, it seems opponents cannot necessarily be trusted here.  More exactly, gradations in opinion are too subject to variation based on nothing more than semantics, and those strongly opposed to euthanasia weaken their own stance through an interesting subjectivity, or interpretation, of the subject itself.  It was found by the 2005 Gallup poll, for instance, that 75 percent of Americans are in favor of a doctor assisting in taking the life of a terminally ill person who desires it; the same poll, however, reveals that only 58 percent favor doctor-assisted suicide.  The meanings are identical, but it seems that evoking the word, “suicide,” vastly alters the perception (Gallup, Newport  178-179).  This points to an important flaw in opposition logic, which in turn goes to the concern over external parties determining quality of life.  That is: if assisted euthanasia is acceptable to many, but assisted suicide is not, the issue is not that of transferring authority to an outside party at all.  Then, and critically, it must be reinforced that no society may legalize euthanasia without setting in place safeguards preventing any such undue influences.

Conclusion

Euthanasia is a complex and highly sensitive controversy today, as it always has been.  Opponents rely on religious feelings and texts to denounce it as an unspeakable usurpation of God’s authority; supporters insist on mankind’s right to dictate its own course.  Opponents refer to fears of carelessness, and situations in which external pressures may unduly enable euthanasia; supporters, myself included, insist that no legalization of it may be considered without establishing potent legal and medical parameters.   Most typically, arguments center on just how entitled mankind is to make such a decision, when life itself is at stake.  The fundamental reality, however, is that euthanasia, while regrettable and extreme, is still an expression of human will and choice, and must be honored as such.  Euthanasia, properly regulated and maintained in humane ways, secures all the basic rights of the individual, including that of accommodating the individual’s faith, or relationship with God.

Works Cited

Biggs, H.  Euthanasia: Death with Dignity and the Law.  Portland: Hart Publishing.

Dowbiggin, I.  A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God, and Medicine. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.  Print.

Emanuel, L. I.   Regulating How We Die: The Ethical, Medical, and Legal Issues Surrounding Physician-Assisted Suicide.  Boston: Harvard University Press, 1998.  Print.

Gallup, A., & Newport, F.  (2006).  The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion, 2005.  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006.  Print.

Hood, R. W., Hill, P. C., & Spilka, B.  The Psychology of Religion, 4th Ed.: An Empirical Approach.  New York: Guilford Press, 2009.  Print.

Keown, J.  Euthanasia Examined: Ethical, Clinical, and Legal Perspectives. New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1997.  Print.

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