Euthanasia is when those who suffer from painful diseases wish to kill themselves, perhaps with the assistance of a doctor. Thus it is sometimes called assisted suicide or, very often in recent times, it has been (euphemistically) called "dying with dignity."
For the medical community, this issue brings up complicated ethical problems. For example, does an individual have the right to choose death as an option? Euthanasia also raises the question of whether or not a doctor should participate in such a practice. These are very difficult issues to face, but ones that must be confronted when dealing with euthanasia.
A person must first realize that euthanasia is a subject that is not easily defined. The origin of the word "euthanasia" comes from ancient Greek meaning "good death." The following shows us the three ways in which euthanasia can be performed:
- By an affirmative act designed to bring about death, such as the injection of air into a person’s veins;
- By refusing to commence or continue further medical treatment required to maintain life;
- By refusing to commence or continue further "heroic" or "extraordinary" measures, such as the use of a heart-lung machine following a massive stroke. The first two instances are commonly referred to as euthanasia by action and euthanasia by omission. Euthanasia is not a black-and-white issue, and the ethical concerns are even more complicated. As euthanasia has become more prevalent, the medical community has had to adjust its understanding.
On the surface, euthanasia is a conflict to any physician. A doctor is to prolong life, not to end it.
"For doctors, this dilemma challenges the Hippocratic Oath which commits them to increasingly incompatible duties-to preserve life and relive suffering. This conflict of conscience is steadily magnified by the swelling numbers of elderly people. In these circumstances, many people fear the prospect of senility far more than they fear death."citation needed
Yet the argument could be made that a physician is in fact helping another person by assisting in their death. They are relieving the pain of the suffering person. Perhaps this willingness to remedy pain by any means possible is too apparent in this day and age. When studying the topic of euthanasia, one needs to wonder whether or not people are seeking a short answer for an ongoing problem. Thus the medical community should look for further cures, and likewise people should be willing to see their illness through.
Naturally, such a topic has raised controversy from a religious perspective as well. Christian people see a basic good value in human life and wish to do anything that will preserve life. "Christianity affirms what mankind has said about the inherent value and dignity of human life. It affirms man's basic unity and his living-in-this-world for God and for others, although he has a destiny beyond this world," according to Roman Catholic opinion.citation needed Yet the same thought is common to all Christians. A very similar opinion is expressed by the Orthodox Church:
- "The Church accompanies its faithful from even before birth, through all the steps of life to death and beyond, with its prayers, rites, sacraments, preaching, teaching, and its love, faith and hope. All of life, and even death itself, are drawn into the realm of the life of the Church. Death is seen as evil in itself, and symbolic of all those forces which oppose God-given life and its fulfillment. The Orthodox Church has a very strong pro-life stand which in part expresses itself in opposition to doctrinaire advocacy of euthanasia" (The Stand of the Orthodox Church on Controversial Issues by Fr. Stanley Harakas).
The Orthodox Church understands life as a gift from God and that this gift must be valued.
There are many reasons to which traditional Christianity teaches opposition to euthanasia. Euthanasia is act of killing because it seeks to end life. Killing is clearly prohibited in Holy Scripture: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood be shed for God made man in his image." (Genesis 9:6). This means that life is good and that we should not try to end it because of any amount of pain.
In pro-euthanasia ideology, the practice is understood as a means of removing pain. If pain and suffering are understood as being bad, then euthanasia must be good. "Pain, suffering, and evil in general, thus all reveal a certain lack of being, a certain negativity which threatens man's being-in-the-world. It forces man to consider himself, to reflect on his mode of being in this world and to contemplate the sorrow of his contingency."citation needed To use the modern terminology, this is referring to quality of life. Supporters of euthanasia feel that if their quality of life is infringed upon, they have the right to end their life and to die as they choose.
The advances in medical technology also play an interesting part in the drama of euthanasia. The greater modern advances become, the greater opportunity there is to prolong life. "Not long ago, when the point of death was reached, there was usually nothing that could be done about it. Now, due to the marvels of medicine, all kinds of things can help keep people 'alive' long after what used to be the final crisis. For example, there is a cardiac 'pacemaker,' a machine that can restart a heart that a stopped beating."citation needed This brings the issue to the forefront of whether or not it is right to prolong a life simply by medical advancements. The opposition that is put forth to this argument is as follows: should not we allow a person to die when it is their time and not to prolong their life extensively? Subsequently, is a physician murdering in the strictest sense if he was to withhold the treatment?
According to one euthanasia proponent, "The religious person's concern that ending one's life is playing God may seem to be predicated on the indefensible assumption that respecting the natural ordering of events is respecting the divine ordering of events. According to this view, letting nature have its way is interpreted as letting God have his way."citation needed This is rather difficult, as one can see. According to Church teaching, it is murder. The doctor who has a method of treatment available and does not administer it instead allows the patient to die. Life is extremely important, and we must exhaust every possible alternative in order to prolong an individual's life.
In 1994 the state of Oregon passed a law making euthanasia legal. According to this law, if an individual has been diagnosed with a terminal condition, he has the option of requesting a prescription for a lethal injection. His doctor is legally freed from any liability. In October 2005 the law went before the U.S. Supreme Court. However, on January 17, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Oregon's decision in a 6-to-3 vote. Legalizing euthanasia presents yet another complication for the medical world. Besides Oregon, euthanasia is legal as a practice in Holland and Belgium.
A living will is contract made while a person is still living. It is a document that verifies the intentions of the person in the event of debilitating injury or illness. It is usually accompanied by a power of attorney. A power of attorney is a contract in which someone is selected to make life and death decisions should the person be unable to. Most often, people delegate this responsibility to a family member.
Examples in the media
In 2005 the case of Terri Schiavo made headlines. This was the case of a woman who suffered brain damage and had been in a lifeless state since 1990. Her husband had petitioned the courts to allow him to remove her feeding tube. Finally, in March of 2005, the court sided in the husband's favor, and Schiavo died shortly after.
There is also the infamous Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who has helped numerous patients die. In one eight-year-period, Kevorkian has assisted in the deaths of approximately 100 such persons. Very often, the person who wished to die was killed by being connected to a machine containing a canister of carbon monoxide. Kevorkian is known to have injected lethal drugs as well.
Both of these particular cases, of Terri Schiavo and Dr. Kevorkian, were highly controversial subjects. Schiavo's case forced to people to consider the rights of the patient, while Dr. Kevorkian made many examine whether or not a physician has the right to aid in a person's suicide.
Another critical case that concerned euthanasia was that of Paul Brophy in 1986. Brophy was a 49-year-old man from Massachusetts who suffered a aneurysm that later produced a brain hemorrhage. As a result, he was left in a vegetative state.
"His wife, Patricia, remembered that her husband had told her ten years before, 'I don’t ever want to be on a life-support system. No way do I want to live like that; that is not living.' Although he did not talk specifically about whether a feeding tube should be removed, Brophy's brothers, sisters, and adult children confirmed that he would not have wished to be kept alive by a tube."citation needed
His wife continued to argue in favor of the removal of the feeding tube, which caused the case to be brought to court. A lower court found that Mr. Brophy had a chance of survival, ruling against his wife. But then on September 11, 1986, the Massachusetts State Supreme Court ruled in her favor. However, the ruling included several complications, and Paul Brophy had to be transferred to another facility. Eight days after being transferred he died. This particular case brings an important question to the discussion: does the removal of the feeding tube constitute a refusal of medical treatment? The ruling authorities in many states would answer this question affirmatively. Despite all that has been done, there needs to be further clarification on euthanasia on a legal level.