There are different ways a person can be involved in assisting in the death of a terminally ill individual. Euthanasia, a word associated with physician-assisted suicide, is defined by the Webster Dictionary as “the act or practice of killing for reasons of mercy.” There are two types of euthanasia, passive and active. Passive euthanasia is when life-saving measures are withheld and the terminally ill person is allowed to die of natural causes. A family member choosing to take a loved one off life-support, which leads to death, would be an example of passive euthanasia. There is little controversy or debate over passive euthanasia. The constitutional right of a patient to refuse treatment was established in 1976 by the Supreme Court’s In active euthanasia, a person causes the death of a terminally ill patient. For example, a person who gives a dying friend a lethal injection would be performing active euthanasia. active euthanasia is presently illegal, Physician-assisted suicide occurs when the individual assisting in the suicide is a doctor rather than a friend or family member. Studies indicate, that many physicians are unwilling to provide their assistance in suicide because it conflicts with their ethical beliefs or because it is illegal. Much of the controversy surrounding physician-assisted suicide focuses on the debate over whether the practice should be legalized. Oregon is the only state in which physician-assisted suicide is legal. In 1994, voters in that state approved a referendum called the Death with Dignity Act, which was enacted in 1997. This law allows doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to mentally competent, terminally ill patients to use to hasten their own deaths. Between 1998 and 2000, ninety-six lethal prescriptions were written, and seventy patients took the fatal doses. In the rest of the country, the practice remains illegal. Supporters of legalization believe that terminally ill individuals have the right to end their own lives in some instances. Because physician assisted suicide is illegal in most states, they maintain, many patients are unable to get the help necessary to end their lives and must involuntarily endure extreme pain and suffering. “A natural way to see if an act is the right thing to do (or the wrong thing to do) is to look at its results, or consequences. Utilitarianism argues that, given a set of choices, the act we should choose is that which produces the best results for the greatest number affected by that choice. Mosser, K. (2010).” Utilitarianism is the best choice of the classical theories that would allow the problem of physician suicide to be resolved. There are several drugs to help ease the pain suffered during a serious illness. The pain that remains after death is the pain felt by family, and friends. The family may also have to be tormented by being part of the decision to decide physician assisted suicide. The application of Utilitarianism would make the decision to let nature take its course, and leave no doubt in the minds of the living relatives. This would allow the produce the best results for the greatest number of people involved. The other side of the coin would be ethical egoism. “The literal meaning of "ego" comes from the Greek word for "self," or "I," and that notion is at the center of egoism: I do what I want to do in order to increase my own happiness, my own pleasure. Simply put, I know what I want, and something is good, or right, if it helps me to obtain that desire (and bad, or wrong, if it interferes with my doing so). If doing something promotes my own happiness or helps me reach my desired goals, I should do it. That is the fundamental principle of ethical egoism. Mosser, K. (2010). “This perspective is a very selfish road to take. A decision based solely on a person’s own best interest, and in the case of physician assisted suicide; a decision to end a person’s own misery. There would be no concern for the family or friends left to absorb the loss. I believe that a healthy choice would be consideration of both of these contrasting theories. A person as a basic right not to suffer and at the same time a family should not have to deal with the complications of an assisted suicide on top of the death of a loved one. First, it forces patients and physicians to undertake a clandestine conspiracy to violate the law, thus compromising the integrity of patient, physician, and family. Second, such secret compacts, by their very nature, are subject to faulty implementation with a high risk of failure and consequent tragedy for both patient and family. Third, the assumption that a determined patient can find a sympathetic physician applies, at best, to middle- and upper-income persons who have ongoing relationships with their physicians; the poor, as I’ve already noted, rarely have such an opportunity. Fourth, covert action places a physician in danger of criminal prosecution or loss of license and, although such penalties are assumed to be unlikely, that risk certainly inhibits some physicians from doing what they believe is proper to help their patients. I believe that removing the law against physician assisted suicide, is likely to reduce the incentive for suicide: patients who fear the final stages of illness would have the assurance that help would be available if needed and they would be more inclined to test their own abilities to withstand the trials and pain.
Life is the most precious gift of all, but there are circumstances where life has lost its value. Competent people who have considered their own situation and finds that suffering outweighs the value of life shouldn¹t have find drastic and violent solutions when more other means are available. Those physicians who wish to help what they see to be their humane responsibility to their patient’s shouldn¹t be forced break the law. There is no easy solution to these very difficult problems. However, I believe that reasonable precaution can be put in place that will minimize the risk of abuse. All physicians are bound to do no harm, but we must recognize that harm may result not only from the wrongful act but also from the omission of an act. “Law or a legal system is distinguished from morality or a moral system by having explicit written rules, penalties, and officials who interpret the laws and apply the penalties. Although there is often considerable overlap in the conduct governed by morality and that governed by law, laws are often evaluated on moral grounds. Moral criticism is often used to support a change in the law. Some have even maintained that the interpretation of law must make use of morality”. Gert, B. (2005).
Goodman, L. E. (2010). Some moral minima. The Good Society, 19(1), 87-94. Retrieved from the EBSCO Host database in the Ashford Online Library. http://www.uic.edu/depts/mcam/ethics/suicide.htm
Kennedy Institute of Ethics - Georgetown University
Gert, B. (2005). Morality: Its Nature and Justification. New York. Oxford University Press. Mosser, K. (2010). Introduction to ethics and social responsibility. San Diego, Bridgepoint Education, Inc.