It is commonly said that death is life’s only promise—which might explain why the argument about how it should come to pass, in the terminally ill, especially, is such a hot topic. There are four ways the terminally ill may pass: naturally, the disease takes them; active euthanasia—doctors actively take the life, e. g. lethal injection; physician-assisted suicide—the doctor gives the patient a prescription for a lethal dose of a drug, but the patient self-administers it; or passive euthanasia—a life sustaining treatment, i. e. a ventilator or antibiotic, is withheld.
Three of them—passive, active, and physician-assisted—are hotly disputed. Passive euthanasia is acceptable while active and physician assisted are not. The difference among the three is, as Andrew Bell most accurately put it, “the ethical boundary between recognizing that human life is finite and [doctors] acting as executioner” (Bernards 50. ) The first argument against active euthanasia is that there is no proper way to give it oversight or regulate it (Bernards 72. ) The possibility for abuse is enormous. There is no real way to prevent euthanasia from being an “out” for any number of situations, e. . financial burden of continuing care, a misdiagnosis on the doctor’s part, etc. Loopholes are guaranteed to be found and the risk of them being exploited is too great. A second argument against active euthanasia isn’t something that might immediately come to mind when considering euthanasia. It’s doctoral error. Any doctor can tell you a story or three of misdiagnosis. In any textbook of diseases, you can read through and frequently find the saying, “…_____, frequently mistaken for _______, actually is…” A world of problems would be created if Dr.
X said that Patient Y had Z months to live and Patient X was then euthanized. Not only would Dr. X have a typical malpractice suit on his hands, but he would be responsible for killing his patient. A third argument against active euthanasia is concerning doctor-patient and patient-hospital relationships. How many people delay going to the hospital, putting it off saying, “But I’m fine! It’s not that bad! ”? It seems that every family has at least one member who doesn’t want to set foot in a hospital. Take a moment to imagine if euthanasia became legal.
Fear of hospitals would become ridiculous. Patients who are told that they have a certain amount of time to live may avoid seeking a second opinion, because they don’t want consider making a choice on euthanasia. The final argument against active euthanasia is that doctors should not have to kill. In 1961, Percy Bridgman committed suicide rather than fight cancer. In his suicide note, he wrote, “It is not decent for Society to make a man do this to himself” (Suicidology Online. ) The logical question to this statement would be, “Then who is it decent for Society to make ‘do this’? Surely not doctors! The professional one that one goes to for healing and help? Psychological problems aren’t uncommon in doctors, now, without euthanasia—losing a patient isn’t easy no matter how it happens—, so imagine for a second if active euthanasia was allowed.
The psychological problems that can arise—PTSD, severe depression, etc. —can be as “unbearable” as a terminal illness (Bernards, 73. ) The argument against physician assisted suicide is not an easy one, because there are many benefits. The first is that the potential for abuse greatly diminishes (Levine 85. The patient has to be willing to go through with the procedure, because (s)he is the one performing it. The second is the choice it gives doctors. Doctors who decide to offer this procedure don’t actively kill anybody; they are merely providing a choice while the moral dilemma is up to the patient. However, there are drawbacks. The first of these is that is, and this applies to active euthanasia too, is that doctors may be forced to make the awful decision of choosing between their moral belief in not killing and losing patients.
Is it too hard to imagine that terminal patients may flock to the oncologist who will definitely relieve their pain once and for all? Doctors don’t need that fight. One should not have to suffer for his beliefs. The second shortcoming is that, honestly, there is no need for it. If one truly did not want to fight a losing battle, (s)he would not particularly need a physician’s help. In this day of the internet, with a few mouse-strokes, one can instantly pull up any number of ways to pass on painlessly.
In the 1980s a British version of the Hemlock Society produced handbooks on ways to commit suicide without agony (Bernards 26). Currently, they will deliver handbooks of a similar nature to people who meet their standards (The EXIT Euthanasia Blog. ) The point being, if they want to go, then a lack of physician isn’t going stop them, or be any better than a prescription suicide. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, is the slippery slope argument. Physician-assisted suicide cannot be allowed because inevitably a patients-rights group will form and denounce patients illing themselves. They will say that it is not just for society allow patients to kill themselves, and doctors will be called on to do it in the patients’ stead. Or something similar of the same nature will occur. Thus, either way, we are back to the active euthanasia, which cannot be allowed. One may argue that the arguments presented here revolve too much around the doctor. They don’t. When considering assisted suicide or euthanasia, then one is considering two people. Often more, as the family tends to get involved.
Along with considering the decisions and consequences that the dying must make, one must also consider the decisions and consequences the doctor must make. Euthanasia and assisted suicide, in that case, require a different approach than suicide would. This is not a debate over the social acceptance of suicide in the face of inevitable death; this is a debate over how far doctors should be allowed, be forced, or be coerced into ending suffering. After all, even the way euthanasia is labeled—passive, active, or physician-assisted—is labeled according to how involved the doctor, not the patient, will be in the death (Levine 84. Passive euthanasia, finally, is acceptable mainly because, as Andrew Bell cleverly put it, life is finite (Bernards, 50. ) Thus there is no reason to actively make it longer just for the sake of doing so. Also, choosing what treatments one needs/wants is a fundamental right. Furthermore, passive euthanasia is acceptable because of the distinction of how the patient dies. In passive euthanasia, the patient dies of natural causes, not from a drug or any other cause. Nobody, not the doctor or the patient, is killing.
The word euthanasia comes from the Greek language, where ‘eu’ means well or good, and ‘thanatos’ means death (Bernards 25). The meaning behind the term ‘euthanasia’, therefore, is patient, not doctor, focused. It is based on the belief that it would be in the patient’s best interest to move on to whatever life comes next. But doctors remain behind, and we cannot ask them to bear the burden of killing. Active euthanasia and physician assisted suicide is asking someone to kill. Passive euthanasia is a natural death. Active euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are not acceptable. Passive euthanasia is acceptable.