The first person to be legally voluntarily euthanised in Australia was Bob Dent in the Northern Territory, in the year of 1996. This controversial issue has raised many dilemmas throughout society, and so far it seems there is no clear solution. The implications of euthanasia will be discussed herein. Defining the issue and exploring both sides of the controversy has proven to be a difficult task.
The word ‘euthanasia’ comes from the Greek words ‘eu’ and ‘thanatos’, together translating as ‘good death’. The Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary defines euthanasia as the ‘act of taking life to relieve suffering’. In practice euthanasia proves to be far more complex, as it comes in a variety of forms. Passive euthanasia is the deliberate withdrawal of treatment and nourishment for the terminally ill patient. Active euthanasia is on the authority or for the best interests of the patient who perhaps is unable to speak for him or herself.
For example, a hospital could decide when to take someone off a life support machine. Voluntary euthanasia is when the patient makes a request to have their life terminated, through the administration of a drug or other means. There is also involuntary euthanasia, which is when a life is taken away without and individual’s consent and against their will and is one of the many causes for the sensitivity and distress surrounding this matter.
Euthanasia is also known ‘mercy killing’ (Bachman 1999) or ‘physician assisted-suicide’. The word ‘mercy’ means ‘compassion’, yet combined with the term ‘killing’ becomes a juxtaposition of contrasting meanings. Such terms as these are very strong in the image they reflect, and perhaps the frequent use of them is what makes euthanasia even harder to comprehend and to be accepted as a legitimate practice.
Where do you start or stop euthanasia? The Voluntary Euthanasia Society wants the law to allow people “with a severe illness from which there is no relief known” to be put to death. Those in favour of euthanasia feel that terminally ill patients should not have to endure the slow process their bodies’ deteriorating, being incontinent, pain-racked and totally dependant on life-supporting machines. As such patients lose control over bodily functions; either by being in a comatose state or vegetative state, dignity is lost also as with the ability to control events. Requests for euthanasia are not always because the patient is giving up in the face of suffering, but that they are positively asserting their desire to control events.
Modern medicine has brought about surgery, immunisation and anti-bodies. Inadvertently these have all increased life expectancy in general in comparison to society’s predecessors. This means that the possibilities made available by the modern world should not be completely disregarded. Too often advances in palliative care are protracted, painful and undignified.
This paper has examined the human dilemma, which arises when technological advances in end-of-life medicine conflict with traditional sanctity-of-life values. Society places high value on personal autonomy. To conclude, allowing autonomy for the terminally ill, within legal bounds, would result in fewer ethical contradictions and greater preservation of dignity.