Euthanasia: Mercy Killing or Assisted Suicide?

Euthanasia, otherwise known as mercy killing or assisted suicide, has been a controversial subject for many centuries. The essay Euthanasia Reconsidered suggests that euthanasia is a ‘slippery slope’ that would allow increasing instances of coerced suicide, family members pressuring the elderly not to postpone their inevitable demise for financial reasons among other considerations that lead some to discourage the practice. Proponents of the practice believe that individual freedoms of choice that exist in life also extend to the end of life. They also argue that the sentiment of humane treatment afforded animals that are terminally ill or injured and are suffering should be given to humans as well.

The euthanasia debate embraces compelling and impassioned arguments on both sides of the issue. Proponents of euthanasia are concerned with human suffering. Many diseases such as cancer cause a lingering and excruciatingly painful death. Watching a loved one as they wither away from the disease eating away at their organs is tough enough on family members, but to see them suffer even when drugs are administered is unbearable not to mention what the patient must endure.

This emotionally and physically torturous situation is played out in every hospital, every day of the year but serves no purpose. To many, it is unimaginable to allow anyone, for example, a sweet old grandmother who has spent her life caring for others to spend the last six months of their life enduring constant pain, unable to control bodily functions, convulsing, coughing, vomiting, etc. The psychological pain for both the family and patient is unimaginably horrific as well. If grandma were a dog, most all would agree that the only humane option would be to ‘put her to sleep.’ U.S. citizens are guaranteed certain rights but not the right to ‘die with dignity.’

This right is not prohibited by the Constitution but by religious zealots who put the quality of life of a dog above grandmas. Patients suffering from Alzheimer’s may not suffer physical pain but endure a different type of pain and usually for a long period. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease causing the patient to ramble incoherently and lose their memory. Many people who led vibrant, active, and purposeful lives are remembered by their family members in this state (Messerli, 2007).

Euthanasia is legal in only one state, Oregon, and three countries, Switzerland, Belgium, and The Netherlands. (Hurst & Mauron, 2003). Opponents such as the author of the essay Euthanasia Reconsidered are concerned that euthanasia will be an increasingly preferred option for those that can’t afford health care. “Because supportive services in the Netherlands (and Oregon) have been reduced, people tend to seek out end-of-life options.” The essay goes on to make the point that “most people will not exercise their option of euthanasia when they have adequate pain control and end-of-life care.” This opinion is based on uninformed information.

The Oregon laws are shaped after those in the Netherlands and are designed to ensure second opinions have been consulted and there is an imminent resumption of death within a reasonable time frame of when the procedure is requested (“Court Defends”, 2004). In addition, the patient must make multiple requests for the procedure all spaced out over weeks and must be willing to administer an overdose of drugs themselves.

According to Euthanasia Reconsidered “Euthanasia is provided in the Netherlands, ambiguously enough, for people suffering mental anguish. An example is a woman distraught over the loss of her 20-year-old son four months earlier.” In The Netherlands, euthanasia has been legal for four years but has been tolerated for two decades. The guidelines for physicians handed down from the government include; “the patient must be suffering unbearably and have no hope of improvement, must ask to die and the patient must clearly understand the condition and prognosis (and) a second doctor must agree with the decision to help the patient die” (“The Fight”, 2004).

The essay also challenges the legality of euthanasia, a challenge that has been decided in the U.S. The law in Oregon was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 and was upheld by a vote of six to three. In 2001, President Bush attempted to derail the Oregon law permitting euthanasia stating that assisted suicide wasn’t a ‘legitimate medical purpose.’ The justices, however, were not convinced by Bush’s argument. “Justice Sandra Day O’Connor pointed out that doctors’ participate in the administration of lethal injections to death row inmates” (Roh, 2006).

The essay made several appeals to the morality of society in its argument against euthanasia. One that “abortion policy proves that we are a society that already accepts ridding ourselves of unwanted lives” is unfounded, inflammatory and an opinion based on nothing but the author’s prejudice against the subject. Proponents have society’s best interest in mind when the facts of the issue are examined.

Numerous studies have established that understaffed medical care facilities provide a diminished quality of care to all (“Massachusetts Patients”, 2005). Those that could benefit from quality care sacrifice their health for those that are suffering a slow, agonizing and undignified death. The cost of health care overall would be reduced as people with no hope of survival no longer drain the available resources and manpower which translates to lower insurance rates. Health care costs have skyrocketed over the past decade and as the ‘baby boom generation ages, this problem will increase exponentially which does not benefit anyone.

“Consider the huge cost of keeping a dying patient alive for several months. You must pay for x-rays, lab tests, drugs, hospital overhead, medical staff salaries, etc. It is not unheard of for medical costs to equal $50,000-100,000 to keep some patients alive” (Messerli, 2007). It’s a burden on everyone especially on the family that must pay it. Elderly, terminal patients do not want to be responsible for the financial ruin of their children, but do not have the option to call for an end.

Euthanasia also allows for organs such as livers, hearts, and kidneys to be harvested for transplant into otherwise healthy individuals with the potential for many more years of life. While it may be emotionally morbid to think of things in such terms, in a world where medical miracles can occur every day that permits another human being a chance at a more fulfilling life, these considerations must also be made. In the real world, it is more likely that an individual will opt first to save the young child from an oncoming bus rather than an old man.

By the same token, it seems incredible that today’s society would opt to allow a child to die so that a terminal patient might be forced to live a few more agonizing months. This, in effect, is the result of not allowing people to die with dignity. Many terminally ill people choose to end their own life to evade the previously discussed detriments of a terminal illness. Suicide rates are by far the highest among the elderly population for this reason. “If these people are going to commit suicide, which is better, controlled, compassionate doctor-assisted suicide or clumsy attempts like taking sleeping pills, jumping off a building, or firing a bullet into one’s head?” (Messerli, 2007).

The unfortunate reality is the majority of people in the U.S. die a ‘bad death,’ a fate no one deserves. If euthanasia were legal in the U.S. time health care professionals, of which there is a perpetual shortage, especially nurses, could be used in a more productive manner such as on patients who are not certain to die. It is the moral, compassionate option for terminally ill patients. Opponents of a doctor-assisted suicide law often cite the potential for doctor abuse.

However, recent legislation in Oregon and the UK demonstrate that you can craft reasonable laws that prevent abuse and still protect the value of human life. Laws could be drafted that require the approval of two doctors plus a psychologist, a reasonable waiting period, family members’ written consent, and limits the procedure to specific medical conditions.

Works Cited

Court Defends Oregon Euthanasia. 2004. BBC. Web.

Hurst, Samia A. & Mauron, Alex. 2003. Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in Switzerland: Allowing a Role for Non-Physicians. British Medical Journal. Vol. 326, N. 7383, pp. 271-273.

Massachusetts Patients Say Nurse Understaffing Harms Patient Safety, Undermines Quality Care. 2005. Massachusetts Nurses Association. Web.

Messerli, Joe. 2007. Should an incurably-ill patient be able to commit physician-assisted suicide? Balanced Politics. Web.

Roh, Jane. 2006. “Supreme Court Backs Oregon Assisted Suicide Law.” Fox News. Web.

(The) Fight for the Right to Die. 2004. CBC News. Web.