Should Physician-assisted Euthanasia be Legal?

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On March 26, 1999, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was charged with first-degree homicide and the delivery of a controlled substance. The jury found him guilty of second-degree homicide, and Kevorkian was sentenced to 10-25 years in prison. Despite claiming to have killed at least 130 people, Kevorkian was released only eight years into his sentence, in June of 2007, due to good behaviour. At the time of his release, the crime he had committed was legal in at least four countries. So if he was a murderer, how was it that his crimes were legal anywhere? The answer: his so-called “victims” were terminally ill patients, all of them of sound mind and fully consenting to the procedure. A case such as this brings up many interesting points and questions, but overall it boils down to this: should these “mercy killings” be legal? When a terminally ill person wants to die, but is physically unable to take their own life, do we have any right to force them to continue living?

In the case of physician-assisted euthanasia, a terminally ill patient requests the help of his or her doctor in ending their life. Few doctors are willing, but there are people like Dr. Kevorkian who specialize in physician-assisted euthanasia. First, some type of record must be made of the patient’s willingness to have the procedure performed an official written statement or a video-tape of a verbal agreement, etc. In most cases, the physician does not control the delivery of the substance used — he or she will help the patient by setting things up, and the patient is in full control of the delivery. The patient’s own administration of the substance is what separates assisted euthanasia from just euthanasia. However, in places where it is illegal, the attending physician can face charges of first-degree murder, defined by the pre-meditated aspect of the procedure.

There is much controversy over the legality and moral issues of assisted euthanasia. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees Canadians the right to freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication; freedom of peaceful assembly; and freedom of association. In short, we are free to be ourselves and to express ourselves in a way that does not harm others — but does that not include the right to end one’s own life? In many places around the world, suicide and attempted suicide are illegal. However, some countries, like Canada and Ireland, have realized the uselessness of this law and repealed it. If a person no longer wants to live, they will usually find a way to end it. Whether it was unbearable physical, mental, or emotional pain, they have found a way to escape from it and, depending on their religious beliefs, perhaps even find happiness again. But what if that person was physically unable to commit the act themselves? What if they were in constant, intense physical pain and were just waiting to die, with no hope or chance of recovery? Are we to stand by, to deny that person’s wishes, and to let them live in torment and agony for an unknown amount of time until they finally succumb to their illness? We are willing to euthanize our pets to ease their pain and suffering, but we refuse to do the same when a human asks to be rid of their pain. What does this say about us? That we are more concerned about the comfort of our pets than that of other people?

The most famous case in the fight for the right-to-die is Sue Rodriguez, a woman diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1991. Rodriguez is quoted as saying, “If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?” The court rejected her argument in 1993, ruling that society’s obligation to preserve life and protect the vulnerable outweighed her rights as a person. If a person can’t even choose for themselves whether to live or to die, then how free are we really? We have the right to refuse life-saving treatment, but there is no telling how much pain one will have to endure while they wait. If we have the right to refuse this, why are we denied the right to receive aid in the ending of our own life when it is not possible to do it ourselves? How many of the people opposed to physician-assisted euthanasia would pull the plug on a loved one or wish the same for themselves if they were living under the same conditions? Are they not also taking someone else’s life? Did the comatose patient ask for or consent to their life-preserving equipment to be unplugged? What gives them the right to do to this comatose patient, who is feeling no pain whatsoever and may still wake from their coma, what they refuse to do for someone who is terminally ill, can feel every ache and pain, and is consenting to the procedure? If granting the wishes of these people and easing their pain makes people like Dr. Kevorkian murderers, then does that not, by the same principle, make the people who stand by and let terminally ill patients live out the rest of their lives in anguish, torturers?

There is a fine line between murder and mercy-killings. Can mercy-killings be justified by their good intentions? Is assisted euthanasia not just another — albeit more drastic — form of treatment for some? If the patient is of sound mind and consents to the procedure, there should be no issue. Regardless of whether the law agrees, everyone has the right to live their own life; death is as much a part of life as anything else, and so a person should legally be able to control the conditions of their own death. What is life when you’re in constant pain and confined to a bed, unable to do anything for yourself while you wait to die? As long as it is justifiable, physician-assisted euthanasia should be legal everywhere. People should not be forced to live a life they don’t want.

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