The right to assisted suicide is a significant topic that concerns people all over the United States. The debates go back and forth about whether a dying patient has the right to die with the assistance of a physician. Some are against it because of religious and moral reasons. Others are for it because of their compassion and respect for the dying. Physicians are also divided on the issue. They differ where they place the line that separates relief from dying--and killing. For many the main concern with assisted suicide lies with the competence of the terminally ill. Many terminally ill patients who are in the final stages of their lives have requested doctors to aid them in exercising active euthanasia. It is sad to realize that these people are in great agony and that to them the only hope of bringing that agony to a halt is through assisted suicide.When people see the word euthanasia, they see the meaning of the word in two different lights. Euthanasia for some carries a negative connotation; it is the same as murder. For others, however, euthanasia is the act of putting someone to death painlessly, or allowing a person suffering from an incurable and painful disease or condition to die by withholding extreme medical measures. But after studying both sides of the issue, a compassionate individual must conclude that competent terminal patients should be given the right to assisted suicide in order to end their suffering, reduce the damaging financial effects of hospital care on their families, and preserve the individual right of people to determine their own fate.
Medical technology today has achieved remarkable feats in prolonging the lives of human beings. Respirators can support a patient’s failing lungs and medicines can sustain that patient’s physiological processes. For those patients who have a realistic chance of surviving an illness or accident, medical technology is science’s greatest gift to mankind. For the terminally ill, however, it is just a means of prolonging suffering. Medicine is supposed to alleviate the suffering that a patient undergoes.Yet the only thing that medical technology does for a dying patient is give that patient more pain and agony day after day. Some terminal patients in the past have gone to their doctors and asked for a final medication that would take all the pain away— lethal drugs. For example, as Ronald Dworkin recounts, Lillian Boyes, an English woman who was suffering from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, begged her doctor to assist her to die because she could no longer stand the pain (184). Another example is Dr. Ali Khalili, Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s twentieth patient. According to Kevorkian’s attorney, “[Dr. Khalili] was a pain specialist; he could get any kind of pain medication, but he came to Dr. Kevorkian. There are times when pain medication does not suffice”(qtd. in Cotton 363). Terminally ill patients should have the right to assisted suicide because it is the best means for them to end the pain caused by an illness which no drug can cure. A competent terminal patient must have the option of assisted suicide because it is in the best interest of that person.
Further, a dying person’s physical suffering can be most unbearable to that person’s immediate family. Medical technology has failed to save a loved-one. But, successful or not, medicine has a high price attached to it. The cost is sometimes too much for the terminally ill’s family. A competent dying person has some knowledge of this, and with every day that he or she is kept alive, the hospital costs skyrocket. “The cost of maintaining [a dying person]. . . has been estimated as ranging from about two thousand to ten thousand dollars a month” (Dworkin 187). Human life is expensive, and in the hospital there are only a few affluent terminal patients who can afford to prolong what life is left in them. As for the not-so-affluent patients, the cost of their lives is left to their families. Of course, most families do not consider the cost while the terminally ill loved-one is still alive.When that loved-one passes away, however, the family has to struggle with a huge hospital bill and are often subject to financial ruin.Most terminal patients want their death to be a peaceful one and with as much consolation as possible. Ronald Dworkin, author of Life’s Dominion, says that “many people . . . want to save their relatives the expense of keeping them pointlessly alive . . .”(193). To leave the family in financial ruin is by no means a form of consolation. Those terminally ill patients who have accepted their imminent death cannot prevent their families from plunging into financial debt because they do not have the option of halting the medical bills from piling up. If terminal patients have the option of assisted suicide, they can ease their families’ financial burdens as well as their suffering.
Finally, many terminal patients want the right to assisted suicide because it is a means to endure their end without the unnecessary suffering and cost. Most, also, believe that the right to assisted suicide is an inherent right which does not have to be given to the individual. It is a liberty which cannot be denied because those who are dying might want to use this liberty as a way to pursue their happiness. Dr. Kevorkian’s attorney, Geoffrey N. Fieger, voices the absurdity of curbing the right to assisted suicide, saying that “a law which does not make anybody do anything, that gives people the right to decide, and prevents the state from prosecuting you for exercising your freedom not to suffer, violates somebody else’s constitutional rights is insane” (qtd. in Cotton 364). Terminally ill patients should be allowed to die with dignity. Choosing the right to assisted suicide would be a final exercise of autonomy for the dying. They will not be seen as people who are waiting to die but as human beings making one final active choice in their lives. As Dworkin puts it, “whatever view we take about [euthanasia], we want the right to decide for ourselves . . .”(239).
On the other side of the issue, however, people who are against assisted suicide do not believe that the terminally ill have the right to end their suffering. They hold that it is against the Hippocratic Oath for doctors to participate in active euthanasia. Perhaps most of those who hold this argument do not know that, for example, in Canada only a “few medical schools use the Hippocratic Oath” because it is inconsistent with its premises (Barnard 28). The oath makes the physician promise to relieve pain and not to administer deadly medicine.This oath cannot be applied to cancer patients. For treatment, cancer patients are given chemotherapy, a form of radioactive medicine that is poisonous to the body. As a result of chemotherapy, the body suffers incredible pain, hair loss, vomiting, and other extremely unpleasant side effects. Thus, chemotherapy can be considered “deadly medicine” because of its effects on the human body, and this inconsistency is the reason why the Hippocratic Oath cannot be used to deny the right to assisted suicide. Furthermore, to administer numerous drugs to a terminal patient and place him or her on medical equipment does not help anything except the disease itself. Respirators and high dosages of drugs cannot save the terminal patient from the victory of a disease or an illness. Dr. Christaan Barnard, author of Good Life/GoodDeath, quotes his colleague, Dr. Robert Twycross, who said, “To use such measures in the terminally ill, with no expectancy of a return to health, is generally inappropriate and is—therefore—bad medicine by definition” (22).
Still other people argue that if the right to assisted suicide is given, the doctor-patient relationship would encourage distrust. The antithesis of this claim is true. Cheryl Smith, in her article advocating active euthanasia (or assisted suicide), says that “patients who are able to discuss sensitive issues such as this are more likely to trust their physicians” (409). A terminal patient consenting to assisted suicide knows that a doctor’s job is to relieve pain, and giving consent to that doctor shows great trust. Other opponents of assisted suicide insist that there are potential abuses that can arise from legalizing assisted suicide.They claim that terminal patients might be forced to choose assisted suicide because of their financial situation.This view is to be respected. However, the choice of assisted suicide is in the patient’s best interest, and this interest can include the financial situation of a patient’s relatives. Competent terminal patients can easily see the sorrow and grief that their families undergo while they wait for death to take their dying loved ones away. The choice of assisted suicide would allow these terminally ill patients to end the sorrow and griefof their families as well as their own misery. The choice would also put a halt to the financial worries of these families. It is in the patient’s interest that the families that they leave will be subject to the smallest amount of grief and worry possible.This is not a mere “duty to die.” It is a caring way for the dying to say, “Yes, I am going to die. It is all right, please do not worry anymore.” Further, legalization of assisted suicide will also help to regulate the practice of it. “Legalization, with medical record documentation and reporting requirements, will enable authorities to regulate the practice and guard against abuses, while punishing real offenders”(Smith 409).
There are still some, however, who argue that the right to assisted suicide is not a right that can be given to anyone at all. This claim is countered by a judge by the name of Stephen Reinhardt. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, Judge Reinhardt ruled on this issue by saying that “a competent, terminally-ill adult, having lived nearly the full measure of his life, has a strong liberty interest in choosing a dignified and humane death rather than being reduced at the end of his existence to a childlike state of helplessness, diapered, sedated, incompetent” ( qtd. in Beck 36). This ruling is the strongest defense for the right to assisted suicide. It is an inherent right. No man or woman should ever suffer because he or she is denied the right. The terminally ill also have rights like normal, healthy citizens do and they cannot be denied the right not to suffer.
The right to assisted suicide must be freely bestowed upon those who are terminally ill. This right would allow them to leave this earth with dignity, save their families from financial ruin, and relieve them of insufferable pain. To give competent, terminally-ill adults this necessary right is to give them the autonomy to close the book on a life well-lived.
Barnard, Christaan. Good Life/Good Death. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1980.
Beck, Joan. “Answers to Right-to-Die Questions Hard.”Houston Chronicle 16 Mar. 1996, late ed.: 36.
Cotton, Paul. “Medicine’s Position Is Both Pivotal And Precarious In Assisted Suicide Debate." The
Journal of the American Association 1 Feb. 1995: 363-64.
Dworkin, Ronald. Life’s Dominion. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Smith, Cheryl. “Should Active Euthanasia Be Legalized: Yes.” American Bar Association Journal April 1993. Rpt. in CQ
Researcher 5.1 (1995): 409.
--Esther B. De La Torre
Euthanasia is a serious political, moral and ethical issue in today’s society. Most people either strictly forbid it or firmly favor euthanasia. Although, I have no political background or confirmed religion, I choose to formally educate myself on the matter of euthanasia. I feel very strongly about this issue because I am affected by the matter on an almost everyday basis. I am a patient care technician in an emergency room and also work on a cardiac unit in one of Michigan’s top 100 osteopathic hospitals. I’ve actually watched people in pain eventually die. I’ve had to listen to patients beg me to, “pull plugs,” and put pillows over their faces to smother them so they could die faster. Terminally ill patients have a fatal disease from which they will never recover. Euthanasia is when a terminally ill patient chooses to end his/her own life by participating in physician-assisted suicide. After reading the ten sources and extensively researching euthanasia, I still support and promote the legalization of euthanasia. I believe that all people deserve the right to die with dignity.
First of all, I would like to offer my own personal feelings and opinions on the matter of euthanasia because I actually have frequent contact with people who suffer with terminal illnesses. When I was a junior in high school I was offered the opportunity to explore my career options by pursuing advanced learning in the medical field. I attended regular high school for one half of the day, the other half of my day was spent in a nursing home (extended care facility), Port Huron Hospital and also at St. Clair Technology Center. I spent many hours studying medical terminology and proper body mechanics, I also learned how to take care of sick patients while promoting healthy life styles changes. Unfortunately the hardest lesson which was the how to take care of the terminally ill, while being supportive to their many physical, spiritual and emotional needs. I graduated from high school and proceeded to go to college in order to accomplish my goal of becoming a registered nurse. After graduation I moved into my own apartment and took a job at St. John’s Medical Center on an oncology/hospice unit.
I worked at St. John’s for 18 months. Hospice is where terminally ill patients are sent to be cared for during the last stages of their lives. Oncology is the study of tumors, but more specifically, it’s a term usually associated with some kind of cancer. Therefore, for about a year and a half I had to take care of dying patients. These people had a slim chance of surviving for over six months to a year. When my patients were suffering and in pain I had to smile and tell them, “Don’t worry everything will be all right.” We both knew that everything would no be all right and they had just wanted to die. I witnessed patients telling other members of the nursing staff how they had begged and pleaded with god to take their life due to the excruciating pain they were experiencing. The nurse just replied, “Oh sweetie, you shouldn’t say things like that.” I had patients who were so mean and cruel to staff, it was unreal. They were mad at life because they knew it would be taken away soon. I’ve watched patients who were fully coherent and self-sufficient upon admittance in to the hospital become totally confused and bed bound. I watched these people lose all motor skills, which left them crippled and unable to feed or bathe themselves, or even use the toilet. They had lost all of their dignity.
After reading Peter Singer and Mark Sielger’s, “Euthanasia-A Critique,” it is fair to say that these doctors have put forth a strong argument against euthanasia. Singer and Siegler are both medical doctors who are very proficient in their fields. Singer and Siegler make the point that, “the relief of pain and suffering is a crucial goal of medicine,” however, “euthanasia violates the fundamental norms and standards of traditional medicine” (Seyler 333& 335). When a person no longer has the choice of continuing a normal healthy life, unusual circumstances call for rare methods of treatment. Why should a person be tortured with the, “frightening prospect of dying shackled to a modern-day Procrustean bed, surrounded by the latest forms of high technology,” according to Singer and Siegler this is an adamant fear of many fatally ill patients (Seyler 333). Singer and Siegler make several good points in their essay, however, pain control seems to be the biggest issue facing the terminally ill as stated by the doctors. This is entirely untrue. People who are faced with a terminal illness experience just as much emotional turmoil as physical pain. When Singer and Siegler say, “physical pain can be relieved with the appropriate use of analgesic agents,” I am saddened because it has been my own personal experience to watch terminally ill patients become over medicated and drugged up so much that they are unable to think or act for themselves (Seyler 333). When a person can longer speak, think or act for him or herself, that person has been stripped of their dignity.
Sidney Hook’s, “In Defense of Voluntary Euthanasia,” was emotionally charged and very gripping. Sidney Hook is a philosopher, educator and author (Seyler 338). Hook has been so unfortunate as to have sampled death and was left with a bitter taste in his mouth. He suffers with congestive heart failure, which one can live with but which if not treated or maintained properly will cause a painful death.
He offers his first hand account of meeting with the Grim Reaper:
I lay at the point of death. A congestive heart failure was treated for diagnostic purposes by an angiogram that triggered a stroke. Violent and painful hiccups, uninterrupted for several days and nights, prevented the ingestion of food. My left side and one of my vocal chords became paralyzed. Some form of pleurisy set in, and I felt like I was drowning in a sea of slime. (338)
If this sharp use of imagery isn’t enough to make the reader understand this mans pain, maybe his next account will persuade one to rethink euthanasia, “At one point, my heart stopped beating; just as I lost consciousness, it was thumped back into action again. In one of my lucid intervals during those days of agony, I asked my physician to discontinue all life-supporting services or show me how to do it. He refused and predicted that someday I would appreciate the unwisdom of my request” (Seyler 338). It is important to add Hook’s quotes when reflecting upon his personal experience with death. Hook feels as though he was robbed of the peaceful serenity of death and will have to suffer through it once more, when death comes knocking again.
Euthanasia is a serious issue in today’s political world. Arguments for and against euthanasia are cause for major debate.
Proponents and opponents disagree on at least four controversial issues. The four major issues are, but not limited to, the nature autonomy, the role of beneficence, the distinction between active and passive euthanasia and the public and social implications of legalization. The nature of autonomy basically means that all people are granted the right to think, feel and act for him or herself. The first and fourteenth amendments were put into place to protect an individual’s freedom of religion, speech, privileges, immunities, and equal protection. The role of beneficence involves the physician’s duty to relieve suffering. The distinction between passive and active euthanasia, or killing and allowing one to die. The public and social implications of legalization are totally based on one’s individual feelings.
Euthanasia is a serious topic because it goes against the norms of traditional medicine. Euthanasia is not always applied to terminally patients either. People who have been in serious accidents, or who have debilitating diseases such as severe cases of Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, and Cerebral Vascular Diseases (which lead to strokes and heart attacks) are often in consideration for the application of euthanasia. The problem is, however, these patients typically are in a persistent/permanent vegetative state. A persistent/permanent vegetative state (PVS), is a condition in which a person is neither in a coma nor unconscious. In other words, these patients cannot act or speak for themselves or in addition, respond to much stimulus.
Personal experience and opinion may be a factor that weighs heavily on the issue of euthanasia, but the real substance comes from the facts. The legal ramifications play a major role in the legalization of euthanasia. Euthanasia began with its roots in both the Hippocratic tradition and the Judeo-Christian ethic of sanctity of life, Western medicine has long opposed the practice of physician-assisted suicide. However, the controversy over euthanasia is not new. Beginning in about 1870 (after the introduction of chloroform and ether) and continuing in today’s society, euthanasia is still a hot topic of discussion. Ohio is the only state in the United States of America that does not explicitly prohibit euthanasia by jurisdiction of the federal law.
After interviewing Dr. Caleb Dimitrivich, an oncologist, who most directly works with terminally ill patients at St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital, it is easy to see that he definitely opposes euthanasia. Doctors have real difficulty dealing with death. “Dying is something that I, as doctor, am trying to prevent. If a patient is terminally ill, I strive to make that patients life as comfortable as I possibly can,” says Dr. Dimitrivich. After reading, Matters of Life and Death,” by Professor Lewis Wolpert, one is reminded by the’ “doctors attitude” towards dying patients. Wolpert is a professor of biology and how teaches how biology is applied to medicine “Dying is something patients are not allowed to do. It is an affront to so go against the doctor’s efforts and advice, and this is completely understandable but cannot be the basis for not helping a patient die” (Wolpert 42).
The religious community has taken a negative stance on the issue of euthanasia. The majority of Christian religions ban the application of euthanasia to the terminally ill or PVS patients. In the bible, one can read about the absolute sin of taking another human being’s life, it is iniquitously wrong. After interviewing Maryanne Chapman who is a practicing member of the Catholic faith and who has also worked as a secretary for 15 years at St. Valerie of Ravenna in Clinton Township, MI, her opposition to legalized euthanasia is very clear. “It is a crime against God to end a life,” states Chapman. However, Maryanne is 72 years old and suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), also makes the comment, “people don’t live on machines, so therefore why should we die on them, God didn’t intend for that.” Basically what Mrs. Chapman is trying to say is that for patients suffering with a PVS, it is also a sin to try to sustain a life that has no purpose or function in society.
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