When a person commits an act of euthanasia, he/she brings about the death
of another person because he/she believes that the latter’s present existence
is so bad that he/she would be better off dead.
The word euthanasia originated from the Greek language: eu means
“good” and thanatos means “death”. The meaning of euthanasia is “the
intentional termination of life by another at the explicit request of the person
who dies” (Religious Tolerance). However, euthanasia has many different
meanings, which tends to create confusion.
It is important to differentiate
between the various terms used in discussing euthanasia.
Passive Euthanasia refers to removing some form of life
support which allows nature to take its course. Forms of life
support include: removing life support machines, stopping
medical procedures and medications, stopping food and water,
or not delivering cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Active Euthanasia refers to causing the death of a person
through a direct action, in response to a request from the
Physician Assisted Suicide refers to a physician supplying
information and/or the means of committing suicide to a person,
so that he/she can easily end his/her own life. This may also be
referred to as voluntary passive euthanasia.
Involuntary Euthanasia refers to the killing of a person in
opposition to their wishes. It is basically a form of murder
Euthanasia has been accepted both legally and morally during the
times of ancient societies. For example, the Romans and the Greeks both
believed that “dying decently and rationally mattered immensely” (Hamel,
20). The Greeks and Romans were sympathetic to active voluntary euthanasia
provided that the acts were done for the right reasons, such as, to end the
suffering of a terminal illness. As a result “of this moral acceptance of active
voluntary euthanasia under certain circumstances, Greek and Roman
physicians typically did not feel that they had to prolong human life” (Hamel,
The Greeks and Romans believed that it was important to die a “good
death”, which refers to a clear and calm psychological state of mind (Hamel,
16). Therefore, “it was the physicians role to support the patient in the dying
process and to help ensure for him or her a good death” (Hamel, 20).
According to ancient societies, euthanasia was an approved custom.
But, “with the rise of organized religion, euthanasia became morally
and ethically abhorrent” (Microsoft). The religions of Christians and Jews
both hold human life sacred and consider any form of euthanasia as an act of
murder. “According to Jewish law, a dying man is regarded as a living
person in all respects. Active euthanasia is considered murder” (Kohl, 6). To
Christians, “only God had the right to give and take life, active euthanasia
was viewed as an illicit exercise of divine prerogative” (Hamel, 20).
According to traditional Christian beliefs documented by Thomas
Aquinas, all forms of suicide and/or euthanasia were condemned for the
following reasons: “1) it violates one’s natural desire to live, 2) it harms other
people, 3) life is the gift of God and is thus only to be taken by God”
(Religious Tolerance, 3). But despite strong religious beliefs, euthanasia
tends to “occur in all societies, including those in which it is held immoral”
The issue of euthanasia has been a hotly debated topic of various
religious and political groups. The main question posed by each group is
whether or not a person should be given the option to request assistance in
dying. Advocates of voluntary euthanasia contend that if a person is:
1) suffering from a terminal illness, 2)unlikely to benefit from the
discovery of a cure for that illness, 3) suffering intolerable pain
as a result of the illness 4) has an enduring and rational wish to
die, and 5) unable to commit suicide without assistance, then
there should be legal and medical provision to enable him/her
to be allowed or assisted to die (Overberg).
Ultimately, euthanasia is a question of choice, empowering people to have
control over their own bodies. But, the choice is only to be given to an elite
group of terminally ill, dying patients.
Another growing debate is the legalization of active voluntary
euthanasia and assisted suicide. Organizations supporting the legalization of
voluntary euthanasia were established in Britain in 1935 and the Unites States
in 1938. They have gained some support, but so far neither nation has
achieved its goal. In the last few decades, Western laws against passive and
voluntary euthanasia have slowly been eased, although serious moral and
legal questions still remain (Overberg, 117 – 119).
Legislators are manly concerned with what is called the “slippery
slope” issue. “Slippery slope” is a term used to describe what may happen to
society as a result of allowing something to happen. When applied to
euthanasia, it means that if legislators legally allow physicians to end the
lives of terminally ill, dying patients at their own requests, it most likely will
not stop there (Hamel, 35). People who become diagnosed with terminal
diseases will also want to end their own life, even though they have much
more of a life to live. Basically, legislators are afraid that if the practice of
euthanasia was made legal, it may result in an epidemic of mass suicide.
The medical profession has generally been caught in the middle of
controversies over euthanasia. Government and religious groups as well as
members of the medical field all agree that doctors are not necessarily
required to use extraordinary means to prolong the life of the terminal ill and
dying. However, this is ultimately left up to the family of the patient. So, as a
result of lack of money and/or outrageous medical procedures needed, the
Modern technological advances, such as respirators and kidney
machines have made it possible to sustain a patient’s life for long periods of
time even when they are permanently unconscious and/or suffering form
severe brain damage. Proponents of euthanasia agree that prolonging life in
this manner may cause great suffering to the patient and his/her family. a
result, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws in
1985 completed the Uniform Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. This act entitles
patients the choice to refuse life support (Baird, 167-171). It is a subtle form of
The pro euthanasia, or “right to die”, movement has received
considerable encouragement by the passage of laws in 47 states that allow
legally competent individuals to make living wills. These living wills
empower and instruct doctors to withhold life support systems if he/she
becomes terminally ill. This is another form of subtle, but legal euthanasia. It
is just not referred to be its’ formal term (Baird, 142-145).
In 1994 voters in the state of Oregon passed an initiative allowing
physicians, at the request of a competent, terminally ill patient, to prescribe
medication for the purpose of ending the patient’s life. Opponents of such
euthanasia challenged the law in court and lobbied the Oregon legislature to
repeal it. Instead, the legislature placed the law on the ballot again and in
1997 voters reapproved the measure (Physician Assisted Suicide, 1,9).
In the 1997 case of Washington v. Glucksberg, the Supreme Court of
the United States ruled that the state of Washington’s law prohibiting assisted
suicide was unconstitutional. The Court’s ruling essentially allows each state
to determine whether or not to prohibit or permit assisted suicide (Physician
A woman by the name of Sue Rodrigues was a terminally ill resident of
British Columbia. She suffered from the disease referred to as ALS. She was
helped by a physician to commit suicide in violation of Canadian law. Her
plea to the physician was, “Whose life is it, anyway?” (Religious
Physicians should not be prohibited by law from lending their
professional assistance to those competent, terminally ill persons for whom
no cure is possible and who wish for an easy death. It is a crime in itself to
allow a person to endure such intolerable pain for extended periods of time. I
believe that if it were legal, many physicians would extend their assistance to
those ill patients that deserved to die in peace.
Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia: Christian Moral Perspectives.
Washington, DC: Morehouse Publishing, 1997.
Baird, Robert, and Stuart Rosenbaum. Euthanasia: The Moral Issues.
Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1989.
Hamel, Ron. Choosing Death. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International,
Kohl, Marvin. Beneficent Euthanasia. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus
Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, 1999.
Overberg, Kenneth. Mercy or Murder? Euthanasia, Morality, and
Kansas City, Missouri: Sheed and Ward, 1993.
Physician Assisted Suicide.
Religious Tolerance: Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide Home
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