Mercy or Murder?
Euthanasia is defined by the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy” . It can be done by either not providing measures to keep a person alive, or with drugs provided by a doctor to quickly and painlessly end a person’s life. Many people feel it is their right to choose to die with dignity and devoid of pain, while many others believe it is wrong for a medical professional who has a responsibility to prolong life to assist in any way with death. In this essay, I will show both sides of this controversial topic, and show that there are some circumstances where we should be able to choose our own death over life.
The debate over euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in the United States has continued for over one hundred years . It was more recent, however, that the majority of the public were introduced to the idea of a doctor aiding in a patient’s demise. On June 4th, 1990, Dr. Jack Kevorkian made headlines when his “suicide machine” was successful in the death of his first patient, Janet Adkins. Adkins asked for Dr. Kevorkian’s assistance after receiving a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. It was by her own hands that the drugs that killed her were administered .
Dr. Kevorkian’s machine, which he called the “Thanatron,” was nothing more than pieces of scraps and ordinary household items. It held three bottles of solution hooked up to an IV. The patient needed only one finger to press the button to administer the fluids. The first bottle was a simple saline solution. If by now the patient hasn’t changed their mind, another press of the button was all that was needed to start the process of death . The second solution was thiopental, a drug used for coma-induction. After 60 seconds of the thiopental, the patient would now be in a deep sleep. The machine would then automatically release a lethal amount of potassium chloride which would stop their heart. Within a matter of minutes the patient, in his or her comatose state, would be unaware of the heart attack that would peacefully end their suffering . The death of Adkins sparked controversy from the medical community, government offices, as well as the general public. The state of Michigan charged Dr. Kevorkian with first-degree murder in 1990 for her death . The case would eventually be dismissed because Michigan did not have any law prohibiting euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide . His fight in court did not deter Dr. Kevorkian from trying to spread his belief that people should have the right to choose and plan their own death. Sixteen months later, on October 23rd, 1991, Dr. Kevorkian’s second and third suicide patients died in a small rented cabin in a state park in Michigan. Sherry Miller, 43, was suffering from multiple sclerosis that had left her body completely debilitated. Marjorie Wantz, 58, suffered from chronic pain after ten gynecological surgeries. Wantz had tried to commit suicide at least three times prior to hearing about Dr. Kevorkian’s methods, without success . Michigan government officials were outraged by this news. A week after the women’s deaths, Dr. Kevorkian’s medical license was suspended. He was again tried for murder in the deaths of Wantz and Miller. The charges were dropped for a second time because of the absence of a law prohibiting his services. Michigan designed a bill to outlaw physician-assisted suicide, specifically to stop Dr. Kevorkian from any further deaths . Even with the new bill passed to make physician-assisted suicide punishable by law, Dr. Kevorkian would continue with his practice of death. By 1998, he was present in the deaths of approximately 130 patients, and was acquitted of murder charges two more times. Thomas Youk, 52, would be Dr. Kevorkian’s last patient . Youk was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Dr. Kevorkian videotaped Youk’s death and allowed CBS to air the tape on the show 60 Minutes. On the tape, it was Dr. Kevorkian, not Youk who administered the drugs to kill him. Prosecutors now had the evidence they needed to convict Kevorkian. He was charged with second-degree murder and sentenced up to 25 years in prison. He was released in 2007 with the promise that he would never again assist in a suicide .
The option of suicide may not be an accepted way out for everyone, but why shouldn’t it be available to those who welcome it? It is normal for a human to fear living a life with crippling and debilitating pain. When handed a grim diagnosis of a terminal illness, a patient should be able to choose a peaceful, painless death over months or even years of suffering. If given the option of euthanasia or physician assisted suicide in the face of inevitable suffering, it is giving the patient a sense of control over their death, instead of having to succumb to it. Many argue that suffering from a painful or terminal illness should not be a reason for a life to end prematurely. Medical professionals claim with constant advances bringing about medications and other methods to control chronic pain, patients with a terminal illness can live out their lives without extreme suffering. This would give them more time to enjoy with their family and loved ones . Even given the extra time with their loved ones, patients with a terminal illness will eventually be bedridden, and pass away. The question is when will it happen? The burden of time not only exists in the patient’s mind, but on the minds of family and loved ones as well. Giving the patient a choice over the timing of their own death gives everyone involved a definite amount of time to be prepared for the inevitable. They may choose a painless death over their family at their bedside watching them wither away. The medical advances which have resulted in the benefit of a longer life may also become a burden. A large group of those in support of legalizing physician-assisted suicide are elderly. Many aging individuals fear the possibility that they cannot live independently on their own. They will either have to depend on family or a caregiver to take care of them, or will have to leave the comfort of their home and all of their belongings to move into a nursing facility. To them, choosing their own death is more dignified than being watched after like a child . When speaking about the elderly, those opposed to euthanasia say that they may not be of sound mind to intelligently make this decision. Alzheimer’s disease is becoming common among the aged population. Perhaps it could be dementia causing them to consider death, which may have been inconceivable to them in a right state of mind. They also believe that their choice may be stemming from loneliness and depression, which can be clinically treated . To prevent a death which may hastily have been chosen, a lengthy counseling process of the patient could be put into place. Complete counseling of the family and closest friends could better determine if the individual is in a normal state of mind when considering their choice of physician-assisted death. The complete involvement of family and loved ones in the evaluation process would ensure that in choosing a dignified death, the patient made an intelligent decision. Over the years, euthanasia has changed from a medical issue to a political one. It has legally been argued that denying us this right is also restricting our freedom as given to us from the Bill of Rights . If fitting a stringent set of guidelines, and being of competent mind, it should be our choice to decide our death. The majority of the State Governments do not agree, and currently only the states of Ohio, Oregon, and Washington agree this should be a choice . Members of the government whom are opposed to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are worried of what may occur if they were to become legal. They warn that an early assisted death would be cheaper than lengthy treatments of diseases or disabilities. Insurance companies may urge doctors to try to coerce patients into this option. They fear this could open up a way to filter out those deemed “less desirable” in society . In order to ensure that medical professionals were working in the best interest of their patients versus the insurance companies, a strict screening process could be put into place. Two independent physicians should be required to agree with the decision. The patient should have to sign a request while in the presence of two or more witnesses, to make sure the act is voluntary. Furthermore, a psychiatrist can be part of the process if needed to ensure no coercion is occurring . Even though physician-assisted suicide is illegal in 34 states , nobody can fully monitor what people do behind closed doors. There are many self-inflected suicides each year by people who are terminally ill or gravely disabled. These sudden deaths are very traumatic to the family and others left behind. They are stuck with unanswered questions. They wonder if there were any clues they should have seen, if maybe there was something more they could have done to prevent this. If these victims had another outlet, such as being able to plan their death, it would have been less traumatizing to the people they left behind. Protestors claim that suicide, whether self-inflicted or assisted, is unnatural. The feeling is that the speeding of death goes against moral and religious beliefs. They say it should not be up to humans to decide when exactly a life should be ended, but a higher power. The belief is that if we come down with a terminal illness, that it is what was supposed to happen to us, and to deal with it to the bitter end . If the belief that suicide is unnatural is accepted in society, then what about prolonging life? Medical advances over the last fifty years have brought about longer life expectancies by decades. In nature, if an animal is born with a defect or develops one, it is left to die. In humans, a baby that is born with a defect is treated with surgery and all measures are taken to ensure the baby’s life, no matter how long it may be. How can we say that shortening death is unnatural, but prolonging death is not? Euthanasia is considered morally wrong to some who oppose it. What most don’t realize is that it happens almost every day across our country. Medical ethics permit withdrawing tube-delivered food and fluids by a doctor to allow a life to end. This action causes a person to dehydrate or starve to death. This process can take hours, days, or even a week for the death to occur. If the option of a painless, quick death were available before the person got to this state, it would save the family from making this hard decision for the patient . Many say the moral issue lies in the role of the physician. Their job is to heal and prolong life, not to end it. People fear that if it were legal for physicians to assist in suicide or death, many would begin to grow distrust in their medical professionals. It would be possible for the physician to think of death as a benefit, handing out a grim diagnosis in order to quicken death and open up hospital space . What most don’t realize is that it happens almost every day across our country. The difference here, however, is that the people who are put to death do not ask for it. Abortions are performed for little more reason than the mother is not ready to be a parent. How can we morally justify ending a life of those who cannot speak for themselves? In conclusion, no one should have to suffer through a painful death if they choose not to. It should be considered inhumane to force an ill person and their family to witness the end stages of a terminal illness when there are more peaceful options that could be considered. Physician-assisted suicide gives a dying person a sense of control over their suffering, which may be one of the only things left for them to be able to control. This right should not be denied to them. An assisted death not only could save people from suffering from pain, but mental suffering as well. For the elderly, to lose the spouse with whom you spent most of your life, you are left with the suffering of loneliness and dependence on others. They raised children and families, and lived a long life. For most, they will eventually have to give up their independence and surroundings to enter into the care of someone else. The option to decide just how much of their independence they are willing to give up should be theirs and theirs alone. Physician-assisted suicide could successfully be integrated into medical care if there were strict rules and regulations to monitor the practice of it. People should only be persecuted for those who decide to abuse those rules. Our life belongs to us. The choices about how we choose to live or die should be ours and ours alone. If people who try to help a suffering person by granting them a peaceful way out of their misery is considered immoral, then so should abortion and stopping machines which keep someone alive. What is the difference? The difference is that physician-assisted suicide is asked for by the patient. A fetus, though not yet a functioning human, is still a life. It cannot choose whether it wants to live or die. This should be considered more atrocious than a welcome death. In this essay, I have shown that there would be benefits if euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide were to be legalized. I do not believe that everyone should have access to suicide just because they want to die. But, if the person were experiencing certain circumstances which would lessen their quality of life, it should be available. Even though there are many who oppose the issue, the choice should be solely based on the individual.