Patient Autonomy in Medical Ethics and Law

Topics: Euthanasia, Death, Voluntary euthanasia Pages: 10 (3603 words) Published: November 2, 2014
In medical ethics and medical law, patient autonomy is a central pivot. Patients have the right to refuse treatment even if this leads to their death. Shouldn’t people also have the right to determine the moment of dying, if they are in a situation which is unbearable, and without prospect of improvement? Discuss.

Contemporary society and modern medicine are faced with contentious policy decisions and perhaps none of those is more difficult to reconcile than that of euthanasia. Euthanasia seems to be a moral debate more than a political one, where there is major disagreement over what constitutes the ethically and legally crucial difference between killing and allowing to die. The alleged difference between withdrawing or withholding treatment from a patient seems to be morally justified, while actively killing is morally worse than allowing to die. This paper aims to show that in reality, there does not seem to be any morally significant difference between active or passive euthanasia. Therefore, patients should have the right to determine the moment of their death but, only if they are in a situation which is unbearable, and without prospect of improvement. We already permit passive euthanasia in some circumstances. Since active euthanasia seems morally equivalent, therefore, both can be justified in some circumstances. And while permitting the latter might have some unintended consequences, legislative safeguards will minimise these, and the respect for autonomy it displays should be sufficient justification for introduction of such a program.

The term “euthanasia” is derived from Greek, literally meaning “good death”. Taken in its common usage however, euthanasia refers to the termination of a person’s life, to end their suffering, usually from an incurable or terminal condition. Various types of euthanasia are recognised. Active euthanasia refers to the deliberate act, usually through the intentional administration of lethal drugs, to end an incurably or terminally ill patient’s life. On the other hand, supporters of euthanasia use another term, “passive euthanasia” to describe the deliberate withholding or withdrawal of life-prolonging medical treatment resulting in the patient’s death. In my opinion, every terminally ill patient must have the fundamental right to voluntary euthanasia. The law must recognise the principle of personal autonomy and self-determination, which is the right of every human being to make decisions regarding their own body and these decisions, must be respected. For example, patients suffering from terminally ill diseases that wish to end their life but are incapable of doing so should have the right to a physician-assisted suicide. However, doctors should be in no way obligated to perform euthanasia if they do not want to. No medical staff that are opposed to euthanasia shall be required to administer it. Hence, legalising euthanasia not only ensures protecting the rights of the patient, but the rights of the physician as well. A person may be searching for a good death, but terminally ill patients merely wish to have a painless, merciful death at the time of their own choosing. Surely that is not asking much. People who are making the decisions have not travelled in their shoes, and they do not know what dying is. In the end, all these patients want is to die, peacefully, with dignity, and no pain. Withdrawing life-sustaining treatment from a suffering and terminally ill patient is usually more easily justified that killing such a person. This appears to be accepted by the majority of the medical profession, and is presently reflective in NSW laws. The following laws prohibit the killing of a terminally ill and suffering patient often referred to as active euthanasia. However, they sometimes permit withdrawing life-sustaining treatment also referred to as passive euthanasia. There are two ways of arguing that passive euthanasia can be justified and active euthanasia cannot. The first...

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