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-
assisted-suicide.
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