Should physicians be granted the power to intentionally end the lives of their patients? Recent proposals to legalize physician-assisted suicide have raised this question and triggered intense legal, medical and social debate. For some individuals, the debate is fueled by their fear that medical technology may someday keep them alive past the time of natural death. However, this concern is unfounded for mentally competent adults who have a legal right to refuse or stop any medical treatment. It is also important to recognize that today's health care climate lends itself more to undertreatment than overtreatment.
However, the present debate is not about refusing treatment or taking extraordinary measures. The issue is whether physicians should be allowed to intentionally kill their patients, either by providing the means of death or ending the patient's life by the doctor's hands. There is a tremendous distinction between allowing someone to die naturally when medical technology cannot stop the dying process and causing someone to die through assisted suicide or euthanasia. The question is one of intent: Is the intention to cause the death of the patient?
The terms "physician-assisted suicide" and "euthanasia" are often used interchangeably. However, the distinctions are significant. The act of physician-assisted suicide involves a medical doctor who provides a patient the means to kill him or herself, usually by an overdose of prescription medication.
Meanwhile, euthanasia involves the intentional killing of a patient by the direct intervention of a physician or another party, ostensibly for the good of the patient or others. The most common form of euthanasia is lethal injection. Euthanasia can be voluntary (at the patient's request), nonvoluntary (without the knowledge or consent of the patient) or involuntary (against his or her wishes).