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Essay/Term paper: Euthanasia: an overview

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Euthanasia

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Euthanasia: An Overview

There has been much debate in recent American society over the legality
and morality of a patients right-to-die. Current legal statue prohibits any
form of euthanasia, however, there are many moral and ethical dilemmas
concerning the controversy. For the purposes of this essay, I will define
euthanasia as the implementation of a decision that a person's life will come to
an end before it need stop. In other words, it is a life ending when it would
otherwise be prolonged. There is an important distinction between voluntary
euthanasia where the decision to terminate life coincides with the individuals
wishes and involuntary euthanasia where the individual concerned does not know
about the decision and has not approved it in advance. I will be dealing
specifically with the concept of voluntary euthanasia, for it seems intuitive
that involuntary euthanasia is not only illegal but also profoundly immoral.
Opponents arguments against euthanasia which fail to substantiate their claims,
many proponents arguments highlighted by the right to autonomy, and empirical
examples of legalized euthanasia all prove the moral legitimacy of physician-
Opponents of euthanasia generally point to three main arguments which I
will mention only for the purposes of refuting them. First, many cite the
Hippocratic oath which reads, "I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked,
nor suggest any such counsel" as a reason to oppose euthanasia. Clearly, the
Hippocratic oath does condemn the practice, however, I do not find this as
reason enough to reject the moral permissibility of euthanasia. If the premise
of the oath is flawed (i.e., if it is morally permissible for a physician to
assist in suicide), then a physician should not be prohibited from assisting in
suicide simply because of an oath. Indeed, if it is proven (as will be done
later in this essay) that euthanasia is a moral way to end needless suffering,
then doctors should be obliged to fulfill their patients requests for early
death. The second argument that opponents of euthanasia cite is based on the
Judeo-Christian ethic of human life being the ultimate value of existence. This
argument is vague at best. At the most well-explained level, it says that human
life is intrinsically valuable and should be preserved in every instance
(because human bodily life is the life of a person) thus euthanasia is wrong
because it is killing before life would naturally end. This argument is proven
unsound in two ways. First, I believe that human life is distinct from
personhood. Many patients requesting euthanasia have ceased to be persons
because they are terminally ill and incapable of enjoying the gift of existence.
Thus many of these individuals ( and certainly those in a vegetative state with
a living will that requests euthanasia) are living lives that are not
intrinsically valuable. Second, I disagree with the notion that life is
intrinsically valuable and should be preserved in every instance. I believe
that life is valuable only inasmuch as it is the basis for rational decision-
making. (This argument will be elaborated upon later in the essay). Therefore,
we respect the value of life by respecting a persons autonomy and allowing them
to willingly end their life. The final argument given by opponents of
euthanasia is the notion of a slippery slope in which legalized voluntary
euthanasia will snowball and begin to result in widespread involuntary
euthanasia. The basis for this reasoning is that under a system of voluntary
euthanasia, doctors must make the final determination of whether a person can be
euthanized or not therefore allowing them to decide if a patients life is
"worth" living. Many feel that if doctors can do this to competent people, it
could snowball to incompetent patients and doctors may make decisions to
euthanize without the will of patients. However, I argue that the moral
permissibility of euthanasia depends on a patients voluntary consent. If a
patient does not expressly wish to die, then a doctor who kills a patient
without the consent of that patient would be acting immorally. From a legal
standpoint, the request for euthanasia would have to come first from the patient,
which diminishes the likelihood of involuntary euthanasia occurring. Given
these two scenarios, the idea of a slippery slope is dispelled on both a
theoretical and a pragmatic level. Furthermore, empirical evidence that will
be discussed later disproves the notion of a slippery slope.
In addition to the responses to opponents claims, there are many reasons
why euthanasia is morally acceptable. The justifications for voluntary active
euthanasia rest in four main areas. First, society has a moral obligation to
respect individual autonomy when we can do so without harm to others and when
doing so does not violate some other moral obligation. This is because life is
intrinsically valuable only as a result of its necessity for decision-making and
free will. Life without autonomy ceases to be of the utmost value, rather, a
persons right to choose his or her life (and death) course should be the highest
priority. This principle guarantees a persons right to have his or her own
decisions respected in determining medical treatment, including euthanasia. The
second argument for the moral acceptance of euthanasia rests on the premise of
mercy and compassion, two ideals which are essential to human dignity. In most
cases when a person requests euthanasia they are suffering unrelenting and
continual pain, and there is no reasonable possibility of substantial recovery.
It is morally repugnant to watch another person suffer through humiliating
helplessness and constant pain when one could prevent it. It is widely
considered humane to put animals that are permanently physically impaired to
death, yet humans cannot currently receive the same mercy under the law, even
when they request it. When we are confronted with suffering which is wholly
destructive in its consequences and, as far as we can tell, could have no
beneficial result, there is a moral obligation to end it. The third affirmation
of the moral legitimacy of euthanasia is that of justice. Euthanasia allows for
fairer distribution of medical resources in a society which lacks sufficient
resources to treat all of its people. Because we have an obligation to relieve
suffering, people have a right to whatever medical resources might be effective
in the treatment of their condition. However, the scarcity of resources ensures
that not all medical claims can be met, therefore a fair way to distribute
medical resources must be found. If treatment must be denied to some people
with the result that they will die, then it is better to deny it to those people
who are medically unsalvageable and will die soon with or without treatment.
The final justification for euthanasia is that the burden of proof for rejecting
the morality of the practice should rest with its opponents. It is up to any
person or institution wanting to prevent an individual from doing something he
or she wants to do to provide sound reasoning which justifies interference.
Since it has already been proven that opponents arguments against euthanasia
fail to substantiate their claim that it should not occur, then the practice
should be considered moral.
The Netherlands successful experiment with legalized voluntary
euthanasia is further proof that physician-assisted-suicide is a moral action.
The Dutch legalized euthanasia partly because they realize that the practice
occurs frequently in the status quo and is now entirely at the discretion of
physicians. 85% of deaths in the United States occur in hospitals or nursing
homes; of those 70% involve withholding life-sustaining treatment. This is
certainly a form of euthanasia, yet it is uncontrolled and oftentimes performed
without the patient's knowledge. On the contrary, the Dutch system brings the
question of euthanasia into the open and allows for regulations which lessen the
likelihood of a slippery slope. The requirements for euthanasia under Dutch law
are that patients must ask to be euthanized, they must be fully informed of
their medical condition, suffering must be intolerable, and the process of
carrying out the patients death wish must be performed by a doctor. These
stringent guidelines have created an environment where 2,300 individuals have
found relief in the form of euthanasia, an number which represents just 1.8 % of
all deaths in the Netherlands. Only 1/3 of all requests for euthanasia are
honored by physicians, which is proof against the slippery slope argument. A
study published by the Dutch government in 1992 further dispels the slippery
slope theory. It reported that since euthanasia had been legalized, only 2
cases have been documented where a patient was euthanized without request. In
both cases the patient was suffering severe pain, and was terminally ill. Given
the large numbers of deaths from euthanasia, this statistic seems to be very
small in comparison. Also, in no instance has a patient been put to death
against his or her expressed or implied wish. This empirical evidence
concretely disproves the notion that voluntary euthanasia will somehow snowball
to involuntary euthanasia. It is also powerful proof that voluntary euthanasia
can be carried out legally and with no great harms to society or individuals.
The unsubstantiated claims of euthanasia opponents, many affirmative
arguments supporting the moral permissibility of euthanasia, and the successful
Dutch experiment with legalization all prove that euthanasia is a legitimate
moral practice. If we do not allow for individual autonomy in determining the
scope and extent of medical treatment, then we are sentencing many terminally
ill patients to a final stage of life filled with misery and wracked with
unrelenting pain. Instead, the moral and ethical course of action is to grant
patients who request euthanasia the mercy and relief of a death with dignity.


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