Every year two million people die in North America. Chronic illness, such as cancer or heart disease, accounts for two of every three deaths. It is estimated that approximately seventy percent of these people die after a decision is made to forgo life-sustaining treatment (Choice in Dying). In America and all around the world, the ongoing debate is whether patients should have the opportunity to implement this critical alternative of euthanasia. Although controversial, it is imperative that United States citizens are not denied this right to a humane death.
Groups in opposition to euthanasia say that patients who yearn to make this decision are neither in a healthy psychological state of mind nor have the God-willing right to do so. These groups feel if euthanasia were to become a publicly accepted option to the terminally ill that physicians, family, and even patients may abuse it. They also strongly support modern end-of-life treatment, known as palliative care, as a more logical and moral option.
Perhaps the strongest belief that euthanasia is wrong comes from those who follow the words of the Bible and believe that every aspect of life belongs to God. The Old Testament records an incident involving King Saul of Israel, who became seriously wounded on the battlefield. Fearing the advancing enemy, Saul took his own sword and tried to fall against it. He cried to a soldier, “Come and put me out of my misery for I am in terrible pain but life lingers on.” The soldier acted in accordance with the wishes of the king and killed him. The soldier then brought some of Saul’s armor to David and said, “I killed him, for I knew he couldn’t live.” David ordered the soldier put to death (Eareckson, 111).
Those who believe in the Bible clearly see here that, whether a monarch or a common person, mercy killing is perceived as iniquitous in the Lord’s eyes. To see a more recent example of the Catholic Church’s disagreement of euthanasia we only have to look back a few years. In 1994, for instance, the Dutch television station IKON’s filming of the death of a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease in a documentary, “Death on Request,” brought a denunciation from the Vatican (Branegan, 30).
Equally important to those supporting the anti-euthanasia cause is the thought of any physician, family member or patient who would abuse this right if given the chance. Naturally, much trust is bestowed in these key players of our lives if anything were to happen to us. The question in this sense is how do we know that they will make decisions in the best interest of the patient if they are unable to speak for themselves? Would the financial and emotional burden on the family of a terminally ill patient cause them to make an irrational decision to directly affect the life of the patient? If the emotional stress doesn’t get to some people, the financial burden may definitely hit some families hard these days with the high costs of modern medical treatment. And who couldn’t use thousands of dollars in life insurance? The temptation is definitely there.
A harsh example of this can be seen in the experience of a fifty-year-old woman with cancer of the bones, liver, lungs, and breast. Her doctor was a Polish-born oncologist, Dr. Ben Zylicz. Dr. Zylicz explained to the woman that he could lessen her pain with drugs, and offered her a hospital room. Aware of Holland’s policy allowing doctors to end the lives of the terminally ill by such means, the woman stated, “I am Catholic. My religious beliefs would never allow me to accept euthanasia.” Zylicz assured the woman that he would take care of her, and she agreed to take the room. After twenty-four hours of morphine treatment she was able to see her family (Eads, 93).
Later, a nurse called Zylicz at home with some distressing news. After Zylicz had left the hospital, another doctor entered the patient’s hospital room and asked her husband and sister to leave. He then ordered an increase in her morphine dosage, but refused to confirm the order in writing. Within minutes the woman was dead. Zylicz demanded an explanation from his colleague. The other doctor’s reply was, “It could have taken another week before she died. I needed the bed” (Eads, 93).
For reasons like these, if a person were to become disabled without previously completing a living will in a clear state of mind, they should not be put to death. Anyone that would truly wish to die in that state would have taken the initiative to make his or her intentions clear before the crippling event took place. As in all cases, the responsibility of the patient’s life should be up to a medical staff in concurrence with the patient and family.
Undoubtedly, euthanasia can be gruesome and downright immoral if not managed with extreme responsibility, but groups in support of euthanasia still support terminally ill patient’s option to die with dignity and respect. Euthanasia can be administered with positive effects as long as certain situational factors are always considered. These factors include: the type of assistance, the type of assistant, the type of illness being dealt with, and the age of the patient. Furthermore, euthanasia or assisted suicide should only be a last ditch effort after optimal palliative care has been administered.
Euthanasia, which means “good death” in Greek, became a world renown movement launched by a celebrated 1973 case of a doctor who helped her mother die and then was acquitted of criminal charges (Branegan, 31). Since then it has been praised and protested all around the world, the United States is a special case though. In the land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I initially assumed that this should not really be an issue. Regardless of race, religion, color, or creed, everyone in this country should have the right to make their own decisions regarding their quality of life and where it is heading.
A case in point of where euthanasia may be accepted comes in the following story: On her 85th birthday, Virginia Eddy celebrated with her family at a party with all the trimmings. Then, her son wrote, “She relished her last piece of chocolate, and then stopped eating and drinking.” Her son arranged for her to be placed on a self-administered morphine drip to relieve the pain of dehydration. She died six days later. “This death was not a sad death; it was a happy death,” Eddy wrote. “She had done just what she wanted to do, just the way she wanted to do it”(Euthanasia.com).
According to Eddy, his mother had chosen the time and manner of her death and this had been a positive experience for the entire family. “Although we will miss her greatly, her ability to achieve her death at the right time and in her right way transformed for us what could have been a desolate and crushing loss into a time for joy”(Euthanasia.com). Obviously, this man truly cared for his mother and her well being, just as any son would.
Another demonstration of where euthanasia worked out in the best interest of the patient and family can be found a story of just having the option of euthanasia available to them. When Annemie Douwes Dekker’s husband Hink was first told he had multiple sclerosis in 1978, his family doctor agreed to discuss the possibility of euthanasia when the time ever came to seriously consider it. “That was a great help to us,” Annemie recalled (Choice in dying).
Five years later Hink, now fifty years old, had been in a nursing home for a year and was deteriorating rapidly, losing his abilities to communicate and control bodily functions. His widow, now sixty-two, says, “he had a strong heart; he could have gone on living for years.” When Hink originally requested to be put to death he was denied, but after multiple months and multiple requests he came home from the nursing home to be with his family and was administered poison by a doctor. “I’m convinced we did the right thing,” said Annimie, “He died a good death” (Choice in dying).
Personally, I prefer to think that human factors change society, not that society changes the human factor. The choice of euthanasia is a special thing, and is a decision that belongs to individuals and their consequences. Courts and legislature really have no part in making this an illegal or legal issue (The right to choose to die, 15). Although it is widely believed that euthanasia is wrong under any conditions due to religion, many people are not spiritually strong enough to handle a terminal illness such as cancer or multiple sclerosis in its final stages.
I am personally comfortable with the position of my religion, but that does not blind me to the retching realities and soul-searching involved in euthanasia decisions. If a terminally ill patient in great pain makes an informed choice to die and asks for the assistance of a loved one or a long-time personal physician, that should not be publicly viewed as a problem. It shouldn’t be wrong to do it for someone’s mother if it were her dying wish. When making a decision that entails the termination of a life, it should be left up to the patient or the patient’s living will to express what minimal quality of life would be acceptable to that individual.
The view this paper has taken is not to say that euthanasia or assisted suicide should be flat out legal, but rather that it should be accepted by the public in respect of those who suffer more than they can handle and wish to put it to an end. In order to manage these cases effectively there should be limitations to the types of cases that receive this form of treatment. Much like the guidelines put together by the Royal Dutch Medical Association in 1984, the patient’s condition should be one of “unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved, and the patient must freely request to die. When a patient does ask, the doctor should not proceed without consulting another independent physician. Then each case must be reported as an ‘unnatural death’ to local officials”(Eads, 95).
In addition to these guidelines I propose the patient should also have to provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he or she would have made this decision in a stable psychological state. I also feel the patient and immediate family should see a psychologist on at least two separate occasions before the euthanasia takes place to ensure that the intentions are within acceptable limits. Finally, doctors who violate these guidelines before providing their services should have to face anything up to first-degree murder charges.
When I first chose to look into this topic I was just concerned that Americans should be given the right to die if it is their wish to do so. After all of my research and analyzing of resources I have been enlightened that this really isn’t just about rights. This issue is really about the strength of people’s spiritual will to live. I have seen stories of people paralyzed from the neck down, had both of their legs amputated, but have still been satisfied with their quality of life. On the other hand, there are people that could have been in a comatose state for less than a day and wake up slightly brain damaged but not have the will to attempt a recovery.
Neither outlook on euthanasia should necessarily have a publicly moral significance inferior to the other to anyone on the outside world, but only to the patient. Most importantly, regardless of the final decision, the patient should have the option to make that critical decision and their overall outlook on the quality of life will make the difference between a choice for life or death. Without this option, the members our own families may suffer someday more than anyone would ever want to see them have to.
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Eads, Brian. “A license to kill.” Reader’s Digest. Sep. 1997: 93-97.
Euthanasia.com. 19 January 2000 .
Not Dead Yet. Ed. Stephen Drake. 12 May 1997 .
“The right to choose to die.” The Economist. 21 June 1997: 15-16.
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Tada, Joni Eareckson. When is it right to die? Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.
“Death by Doctor.” By Mike Wallace. 60 Minutes. CBS. 22 November 1998.
MacDonald, William L. “Situational factors and attitudes toward voluntary euthanasia.” Social Science & Medicine. Jan. 1998: 73-81.
“Mercy or Homicide?” By John Donovan and Forrest Sawyer. ABC Nightline. ABC. 23 November 1998
Rollin, Betty. “Last Rights.” Ms.. Aug./Sep. 1999: 31.
Will, George F. “Life and Death at Princeton.” Newsweek. 13 September 1999: 80-82.
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