Should assisted suicide or euthanasia be legal in situations where an individual is experiencing intense suffering? This question brings to light moral and ethical issues which have been the cause of heated debate for several years. In an attempt to find an answer, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and mercy killings must first be defined.
Assisted suicide is when someone provides an individual who is physically able, with the means necessary to end his or her own life. Euthanasia is when someone provides the means necessary and then performs the act that takes the life of another individual. This act may take place either with or without the consent of the individual who is suffering. Euthanasia is performed when death is considered to be in the best interest of the individual in question. (Mathes, 2004) Euthanasia is often performed by administering extremely high doses of narcotics, sedatives or antidepressants. The patient develops respiratory depression which results in death. (Panzer, 2000)
Doctor Jack Kevorkian emerged in the public eye in 1990 due to his involvement in the assisted suicides of at least 130 people. Although many people credit him for launching the right-to-die movement, he did not. He acted entirely on his own initiative until he was charged and convicted of second degree murder in the death of Thomas Youk. Kevorkian didn’t launch the movement, but his actions did bring the right to die issue into the lime light. (Humphry, 2007)
There are pros and cons of assisted suicide. Both sides of the issue are supported for specific reasons. All of the reasons are completely understandable. Unfortunately, whether or not you support assisted suicide is a matter of each individual’s moral and ethical guidelines. The only factor that is definite is the fact that it’s illegal.
The Pros of Assisted Suicide
· Patients are relieved of extreme suffering – Many illnesses including cancer cause a slow death accompanied by excruciating pain. Doctors know when a patient is going to die as the result of an illness. Some believe that allowing a patient to experience such unbearable pain when they are going to die anyway is inhumane and unacceptable.
· Every person has the right to choose whether they live or die – The constitution doesn’t state that a person doesn’t have the right to choose death. Therefore, everyone has the right to choose for themselves.
· Patients have the right to die with their dignity intact – Many terminal illnesses cause people to slowly deteriorate until they lose control of their bodily functions. In situations such as this, patients are stripped of their dignity. They don’t want their families to remember them this way. Patients should have the right to choose death with dignity.
· The cost of health care can be greatly reduced – Health care costs for the terminally ill can add up quickly and dip into any money or assets that the patient wanted to leave to family members in their will. If a person would rather die than then should be able to exercise that right.
· Medical staff can devote more time to saving lives – Understaffed hospitals are common in the United States. Situations such as this can affect the quality of care and can even cause overtired hospital staff to make errors that could be potentially harmful to patients. Caring for dying patients takes a lot of time. If a patient would rather die and are allowed to do so, then hospital staff could devote more time to the care of patients who will recover.
· Disallowing suicide infringes on the patients religious freedoms – Religious beliefs include life in the hereafter. Laws disallowing suicide allow the government to force their religious and moral beliefs on everyone else.
· Assisted suicide can make it easier on family – Families often experience as much pain as their dying family member. They are often overcome by grief and stress by watching a loved one suffer, knowing they are going to die anyway. Oftentimes patients would prefer to die rather than to watch their family members hurt so much. Allowing the patient to choose death can ease the pain and suffering of the family and the patient.
· Healthy organs can be harvested to save the life of someone else – Hundreds of people are on organ waiting lists waiting for healthy organs needed to save their lives. When a patient is slowly dying, their organs begin to shut down and cease to function making them unusable as a donor organs. If a patient is allowed to die, their organs can be used to save lives.
· Patients who want to die may attempt suicide on their own – If patients choose to end their lives on their own, they will use whatever means necessary. Sometimes they choose a bullet or a noose and this can be devastating to the family. Assisted suicide is a more humane way for patients to die.
The Cons of Assisted Suicide
· Violation of the Hippocratic Oath – When doctors take part in assisted suicides they are violated the Hippocratic Oath which includes, “First, do no harm.” Furthermore, it would undermine the trust between doctor and patient.
· Assisted suicide devalues human life – In the United States when death occurs, we mourn and part of the process includes celebrating the life of the person who died with memorial services, wakes and other ceremonies. When there are tragedies that result in loss of life, we donate money to the families who suffered loss. Americans place value on a human life and taking a life through assisted suicide because it’s the easy way out, eliminates that value.
· Legalizing assisted suicide could lead to abuses – If the United States legalizes assisted suicide for dying patients there will some who will use it as a catalyst to legalize all suicide due to emotional or psychological issues or simply because a person no longer desires to live. This would be a travesty.
· “Thou shall not kill.” – Just about every religion has laws against killing. Allowing assisted suicide would demean the religious and moral values of our society.
· Patients would give up too easily – If a patient is given a terminal diagnosis and assisted suicide is legal, they may choose to give up on life too soon. There have been miraculous recoveries and incorrect diagnosis. Patients, who choose death too soon, may forfeit their second chance at life.
· Insurance companies would put on the pressure – If assisted suicide was an option, doctors would be pressured by insurance companies to act. Insurance companies would save a lot of money by not having to pay for the health care of dying patients
· Too much power for doctors – Legalizing assisted suicide would put too much power in the doctor’s hands which could cause them to act in an unethical or immoral manner.
Although the American Medical Association is against physician assisted suicide, there are still doctors who support and participate in this practice. In one physician survey done by physicians in Oregon it was found that 53% of the physicians asked, approved of assisted suicide and 24% supported euthanasia. When a patient was experiencing extreme physical weakness, 37% of the physicians asked, supported assisted suicide and 24% supported euthanasia. In situations where patients believed that they were causing undue distress to their loved ones, 24% of physicians supported assisted suicide and 7% supported euthanasia.
When patients had lost all hope in living, physicians supported assisted suicide by 22% and 7% supported euthanasia. In another survey taken by a group of one-hundred and fifty-five oncologists, it was found that 15.8% admitted to participating in either assisted suicide or euthanasia. In 60.5% of the cases, patients requested euthanasia or assisted suicide. There were 15.8% of patients who didn’t make the decision that their life be ended, but the decision was made for them. Research seems to consistently reveal that a small number of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers have admitted to participating in ending the lives of patients. (Panzer, 2000)
Incidentally, the American Nurses Association also opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia. The ANA defines the standards expected and the ethics by which nurses are bound. The ANA also developed the “The Code for Nurses” and published it in 1976. “The Code” serves as a guide for practicing nurses, as well as a guide for evaluating nurses. The ANA further expresses that the nursing profession follows in the tradition of the Hippocratic Oath, “do no harm.” There is often a thin line between the “preservation of life” and a “dignified death,” but the Code emphatically observes its opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia. However, the ANA views the withdrawal of treatments meant to sustain life such as a ventilator, chemotherapy or a feeding tube, as within the rights of the patient. (Mathes, 2004)
Surprisingly, very few patients actually follow through with assisted suicides. Many feel that since so few people are seriously interested in assisted suicide that the need for legislation isn’t justified. Only one in ten patients request the lethal medications and only half ingest it. Knowing that assisted suicide is an option is a comfort for dying patients. Even if they never do it, they know there’s a way out if their pain and suffering becomes unbearable. However, many hospice caregivers contend that the pain isn’t so much a concern for the patients as is their quality of life. (Jeffrey, 2006)
Family members, who have experienced assisted suicide first-hand, have mixed reactions. While some describe the death of their loved one as peaceful or beautiful, some are devastated because their loved one chose death. Family members give similar descriptions of the natural deaths of loved ones. (Jeffrey, 2006)
The question of whether or not assisted suicide or euthanasia should be legalized or not is a very personal issue. The answer will depend on such factors as religious beliefs and moral values. It’s not an issue that the government should even address. If the government takes a stand and either opposes or supports assisted suicide and euthanasia, they are then imposing their beliefs on the people. If the government imposes their beliefs on everyone then our country is no longer a democracy. On the other hand, the United States was founded and built on Christian principles. Perhaps the government should decide their position on the issue based on the teachings of Christianity. The debate will likely continue for many years because there isn’t a cut and dry answer. There is no right or wrong answer. Everyone needs to decide based on their own personal convictions.