Should Physician-Assisted Suicide be Legal?
Most people in North America die what may be called a bad death. One study found that ‘More often than not, patients died in pain, their desires concerning treatment neglected, after spending 10 days or more in an intensive care unit’” (Horgan). The word euthanasia is the opposite of bad death in that its Greek origins of eu (good) and thanatos (death) have it meaning good death.
The media attention dedicated to Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the “death doctor,” in the 1980s has given rise to some interesting questions and moral dilemmas concerning the right to die. Jack Kevorkian made use of suicide machines, rigged contraptions that would deliver a death blow, to his patients that recommended them.
Basically, euthanasia is the mercy killing of an individual who has a terminal illness and who might be in considerable pain or have no quality of life. It can take two forms. Passive Euthanasia is simply denying the patient lifesaving treatments. Examples of this can be the removal of feeding tubes or breathing tubes. Active Euthanasia is, as the name implies, an active way to put a suffering individual to death. It may include administering lethal doses of painkillers or toxins to the individual. One definition of physician assisted suicide which combines both type of euthanasia and therefore has been dubbed ‘voluntary passive euthanasia (VPE) is “A physician supplies information and/or the means of committing suicide (e.g. a prescription for lethal dose of sleeping pills, or a supply of carbon monoxide gas) to a person, so that they can easily terminate their own life (Robinson). Recently morals and ethics have come into conflict over this issue. Is the right to die inherent in each individual? What role does dignity play? Is the quality of life more important than the sanctity of life?
The majority of people look to answer these questions from their own personal experiences. Those who have watched love ones die long and painful deaths will usually wish to avoid those ends themselves. When death is imminent, suffering for a few extra days spent in pain or even unconscious or unaware of one’s surroundings seems a futile and even cruel punishment to inflict upon oneself or a loved one. Others fear that the depression and pain experienced by the dying person are clouding their decision-making abilities. However, personal feelings are the least likely to be validated because everyone’s personal feelings and view differ. Therefore, other levels of the moral and legal hierarchy must be considered.
Many attempt to resolve this dilemma through religious avenues. Religion as a basis for legal decisions is not uncommon. Legally, the church and state must remain separate, but many exceptions have been made. A moment of silence in school can be used for prayer. Member of certain religious denominations may refuse medical treatment such as vaccinations for their children. Certain individuals are not required to swear on the Bible in court, and some religious groups are even allowed controlled and illegal substances for use in religious services. Clearly precedence has been set for breaching or at least blurring, the line between legal and moral. Most devoutly religious individuals believe that taking the life of another is immoral under any circumstances. They believe that only God can give and take life. Clearly they view physician-assisted suicide as murder. Doctors who do so are playing God, which is considered a sin.
From a medical standpoint, doctors are often in the middle of this debate. As physicians, they are extremely knowledgeable about the pain and suffering associated with terminal diseases and injuries. They may feel personally saddened at this deterioration of a patient that they have come to know. However, the doctors are bound by the Hippocratic Oath in which they have sworn “first, do no harm.” At this point, they possible feel conflicted between their professional duty and their personal feelings.
Legally, taking one’s own life is suicide and taking another’s life is murder. Wikipedia defines murder as “the premeditated unlawful killing of one human being by another through any action intended to kill or cause grievous bodily harm” (Murder). This definition, doctors who take the life of a patient, even one who is suffering horrible and certain to die, is guilty of murder.
Thus, the question of should physician-assisted suicide be legal is certainly complex. Public opinion polls show that the international public is generally supportive of euthanasia. According to a Gallup poll in 1997, 57% of people are in favor and 35% are opposed in the US. In Canada, 76% are supportive with that number rising to 80% in Britain, 81% in Australia and 92% in the Netherlands (Reed, A12).
The right to die is just one of the many choices that have come under the legislative domain. Roe v. Wade gave the choice of abortion to women. However, this right is now in jeopardy. It seem that the US government is afraid to give choices about personal life decisions to the American public out of fear of religious backlash. This has led to doctors fearing to provide this humanitarian aid out of fear of legal backlash in the form of lawsuits or even prosecution.
Sue Rodriguez was the center of a high profile terminally ill case in Canada. Suffering from ALS, she publicly challenged all opponents of the right to die with “Whose life is it, anyway. Her doctor helped her commit suicide in the presence of a Canadian Member of Parliament. Neither was prosecuted (Robinson). It is very hard to argue with the pleas of a dying woman in this situation. However, the recent case of Terry Schiavo, in which the family had to make an interpretation of an incapacitated woman’s desires, is less cut and dried. Human greed and hatred can interfere with just decision making and this case clearly divided America.
One way to ensure that an individual’s own personal wishes are carried out is through a living will. In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that every individual has the constitutional right to control his or her own medical treatment and that doctors, nurses or any professional staff must follow ‘clear and convincing evidence’ of the ill individual’s wishes. The personal position of the doctors and the family cannot override a living will (Robinson).
Unfortunately, 67% of people do not have a living will (Robinson). In absence of such a document, society is forced to the original question: Should physician assisted suicide be legal? Yes, it should. First of all, the majority of the public believes that it is the right and just thing to do. Next, legal precedents of the importance of choice in similar situations such as abortion have already been established in court. Third, even if patients are depressed or in pain, they are still dying. The United States Justice system validates the choices of depressed individuals every day. If a depressed person makes a choice to commit a crime, that choice is validated by an arrest, conviction and possible prison term. Prolonging their life under these circumstances is cruel and unusual punishment. Doctors can choose as well. Millions of people rely on doctor’s choices every day.
The United States should not strip individual choice from its citizens. Citizens should be able to make the choice and then live (or, in this case, not live) by the consequences. Physician assisted suicide should be legalized in the United States. This way it can be documented and cases like Sue Rodriquez and Terry Schiavo will not have to dominate the media but can rest in the peace that they deserve.
Horgan, John. “Right to Die.” Scientific American. May 1996.
Murder. Wikipedia. Retrieved 19 July 2006 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder
Reed, Christopher. “Oregon Tackles Mercy Killing.” Globe and Mail. June 27, 1997: A12.
Robinson, B.A. Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide. Ontario Consultants on Religious
Tolerance. January 19, 2006. Retrieved 19 July 2006 from