Level 16 - Colossus
Society and Euthanasia
Throughout the ages, people have reflected upon the issues of death and dying. While most recognize that death is inevitable, fear of the unknown has pervaded such discussions (Anderson, 1980). Different societies have attempted to address these fears and concerns in diverse ways in accordance with their religious or cultural backgrounds and norms in order to make the final passage of life more comforting. With the advent of modern medical technology and the more common usage of artificial measures to prolong life, many people today are more fearful of the process of dying than of death itself (Anderson, 1980).
In a society where freedom and personal rights are fought for everyday, it is no surprise that euthanasia has become such a predominant issue for us. However, because our society is so committed to making sure that everyone's personal rights are met and appreciated, it is shocking that there is such a controversy over it.
The word Euthanasia comes from the Greek language: eu means "good" and thanatos means "death". The meaning of the word has evolved from "good death". It now refers to the act of ending another person's life, at their request, in order to minimize suffering (Baird and Robinson, 1989). It comes in two main forms:
--Passive Euthanasia: Hastening the death of a person by: Removing life support equipment (e.g. a respirator) or Stopping medical procedures, medications etc., or Stopping food and water and allowing the person to dehydrate or starve to death. These procedures are performed on terminally ill, suffering persons so that natural death will occur sooner. It is also done on persons in a Persistent Vegetative State - individuals with massive brain damage who are in a coma from which they will not recover (Baird and Robinson, 1989).
--Active Euthanasia: Causing the death of a person through a direct action. Such as giving a patient a lethal injection of a toxic substance (Baird and Robinson, 1989).
Different religious groups, legal groups and advancements in technology have contributed to the debate of whether or not euthanasia should be allowed. However, we rarely hear about the social factors that have also contributed to the controversy and these factors are the ones that involve us, directly.
The first social factor that contributes to the debate of euthanasia occurs because of the new advancement made in medical technology. These new advancements, such as ventilators and dialysis machines, have made it possible for people to extend an individuals life far beyond the time a person's heart has actually stopped and their mind is functionally dead (Kluge, 1993). This fact alone has placed new and unaccustomed demands on families and society.
For example, families in this circumstance, may feel that they are letting down that family member who is terminally ill, by requesting the physician not to undergo extreme measures to extend their life (Clark, 1993). In order to make the best possible decision for everyone, the family must think about the quality of life that person would have if their life were prolonged and whether or not they would be happy with it. Because the prolonging of one's life is possible, society is loaded with the burden of extreme medical expenses and the increase demands for medical resources - such as machinery, nurses, doctors and hospital beds (Clark, 1993).
The second social factor that contributes to the euthanasia issue is the ongoing change to the structure of the family. A family years ago, use to include the immediate family and other members, such as uncles, grandparents etc. This was referred to as the "extended family". Now days the family has decreased in size and only includes the immediate members, this is called the "nuclear family".
The nuclear family has caused many of the older members to feel like a burden because the family is now less suited to take care of the elderly, who may require constant attention. When the family can no longer take care of their elderly, they usually send them to a nursing home, this is where many elderly lose their desire to live because they feel unloved (Clark, 1993). This feeling of loneliness could eventually lead many of them to look towards euthanasia as an escape (Clark, 1993).
The third and final social factor that adds to the issue of euthanasia is society's feelings towards non-reproductive people. The society that we live in today is very negative towards people who "don't pull their own weight", or people who do not make an evident contribution to society (Beauchamp and Perlin, 1978). We are so consumed with the idea of making money and being successful that the people who can not do so, are considered to be a burden for depending on us for support. Elderly and machine dependent people are considered as such and actually begin to agree with society, or feel that they are really a burden or useless. The only way, in their eyes, to stop this feeling, again may be to demand euthanasia (Clark, 1993).
One of our biggest concerns we should have is what will happen to our elderly, sick and disabled if euthanasia is legalized. The high cost of health care and lack of financial support for places that specialize in taking care of these people has made us look towards euthanasia as an easy way to resolve our problems; rather than trying to fix them (Clark, 1993). In the past, it was considered acceptable for a few cultures to kill there elderly and disabled members, who were considered useless and unable to benefit society in some way (Larue, 1985). This may seem cruel and inhumane to us, probably because our society is dominated by Christian and Jewish ethics (Larue, 1985). The idea of senicide is actually being considered by some as a way to reduce the growing population and to improve our medical situation (Post, 1991).
Philosopher Margaret Battin defends the direct termination of the elderly on the assumption that in the future many forms of health care will no longer be available to us, due to lack of finances. She believes that the elderly who do not have strong religious beliefs, will want to be killed if it would benefit following generations (Post, 1991). However, she feels that they will only do that if it is socially acceptable and legal. Despite any reason that someone may give to justify euthanasia, senicide or mercy killings, one must take in to consideration that life is very precious, no matter the circumstances surrounding it (Post, 1991).
Society and its beliefs play a huge role in the issues of euthanasia. Many factors listed above are usually not taken into consideration, or even thought of when dealing with this issue. It is probably quite apparent now that in order to make an educated decision about where you stand, you must look at euthanasia from all angles.
A Case For Legalization
Individual liberty is where this issue leads. There is a case for legalizing assisted suicide and active voluntary euthanasia. Let me begin by providing a case for assisted suicide and active voluntary euthanasia. There are four arguments designed to do this.
The first and simplest appeals to the value of liberty. Freedom, qua freedom, is a good; restraint, qua restraint, an evil (Browne, 1995). This forms the basis of the common view that individuals can do as they want unless there are weighty reasons which dictate otherwise. Restrictions on liberty are certainly sometimes justifiable, but the burden of justification always lies on their defenders (Browne, 1995). Thus, given that prohibiting assisted suicide and active voluntary euthanasia are restrictions on liberty patients are prevented from getting what they want, and physicians from providing it. There is a standing case for legalizing those practices, and it is up to their opponents to show why they should be forbidden.
This prima facie case can be strengthened by appealing to two other equally uncontroversial values: the prevention of suffering and the dignity of the individual. Patients sometimes are in medical conditions for which there is no relief, and awaiting them is a future filled with suffering, or the indignity of the disintegration of their bodily and mental functions, or both (Seale, 1994). They also often want to avoid these evils, and shield loved ones from their sight. But it is also sometimes the case that the only way to do this is to die, and the only way to do that is to receive some assistance in the form of help in committing suicide or active voluntary euthanasia (Seale, 1994). If we now grant, that people have at first view, a right to preserve their dignity and minimize their suffering and that of others, we again get a strong presumption in favor of making some kind of legal allowance for assisted suicide and active voluntary euthanasia (Browne, 1995).
Finally, I turn to a pair of arguments which proceed by alleging there is an inconsistency between what the law permits and prohibits, and since it is right to permit what it does, the prohibition should be removed. The first of these begins with the fact that passive voluntary euthanasia is allowed by the law: a competent and fully informed person may, for whatever reason, appropriately refuse any treatment necessary for life (Browne, 1995). Thus, if active voluntary euthanasia is to be legally proscribed, there must be some relevant difference between killing and letting die. It is, however, not clear: if both the intention-to bring about a death-and the certainty of outcome (death coming about) are the same in each, it is hard to see how there could be any morally relevant difference between killing a patient and letting him die (Baird and Rosenbaum, 1978). It does not follow that we can appropriately aid a person in securing death whenever he can refuse treatment, for he may refuse treatment for a bad reason, and while there may be nothing immoral or properly preventable about him harming himself, there is something wrong in our assisting him in doing so. However, it does follow that if he has a good reason for refusing treatment, if say, his future is brief and only holds pain and indignity-there is a presumption that there is nothing wrong with our assisting him, and the law should not stand in our way either to help him kill himself or to kill him on his authority (Seale, 1994).
My second argument under this head runs along exactly similar lines, and begins with the fact that suicide is not a criminal offence (Browne, 1995). This does not mean we should not prevent suicide when we can. In most cases we certainly should, for suicides typically have very bad reasons for wanting to die, and need our help. But suicide cannot be properly prevented in all cases. If a person has a good reason for death. If, for instance, he is elderly and terminal and suffering, it would be unspeakably meddlesome to interfere (Seale, 1994). But if so, we get the presumption that in just those circumstances in which we should not prevent a person from bringing about his own death, we can appropriately help him do so by either assisting his suicide or delivering active voluntary euthanasia. If a person has a good reason to die, and does not have the means to commit suicide, he should, be allowed to request and receive those means from those willing to provide them (Seale, 1994). If he is too weak to swallow a pill or inject himself, to authorize others to deliver the fatal dose. Thus the right to suicide under certain conditions entails the individual the right to assisted suicide and active voluntary euthanasia.
This completes my case for the legalization of assisted suicide and active voluntary euthanasia. Insofar as we value liberty, the prevention of suffering, and dignity, and admit that sometimes people have a good reason for wanting to die and need help to do so. There is no avoiding the conclusion that the burden of proof lies on those who wish to oppose legalizing the practices in question.
A Case For Canada
Sue Rodriguez was a 42 year old woman from British Columbia. She was a mother of a 9 year old boy and had an estranged, loveless relationship with her husband, who still shared her house. It was also said that Sue had a remote and cold relationship with the rest of her family.
In August of 1991, Sue was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) commonly known as Lou Gherigs Disease. ALS is a debilitating and fatal disease that slowly destroys the muscle and deteriorates the body eventually making the person lose control of their bodily functions.
Sue Rodriguez's essential point was as a terminally ill, competent adult, she should be able to determine the time she was to die and to bring it about herself; rather than being forced to endure ongoing mental and physical suffering needlessly. She therefore decided to present her case before a panel of judges, in order to have a legal, doctor assisted suicide.
On December 29th , 1992, Ms. Rodriguez argued that since it was a criminal offence(under the Criminal Code of Canada) for a person to aid her in terminating her life, when she cannot do it with out assistance, therefore it deprived her of liberty and security of a person under the Canadian Charter of Human Rights. Her pleas were considered invalid by the panel (Levy, 1994).
After another trip to court in February of 1993 and again to no avail she finally appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada on May 20th 1993. She claimed that three sections of the Charter conflicts and violates the Criminal Code. With these sections she argued that because it was an offence to assist or aid a person with suicide, that this discriminated against disabled persons who are unable to commit suicide without assistance. In that it deprives them the right to chose suicide. Her appeal was denied on September 30th 1993 (Levy, 1994).
On February 12th 1994, Sue Rodriguez, assisted by an unnamed physician, ended her life by taking a massive overdose of morphine along with Seconal capsules. It was said that NDP Member of Parliament, Svend Robinson and Sue's husband Henry were also present for her death but no one knows for sure (Levy, 1994).
Following Sue Rodriguez's death the subject of euthanasia became a very prominent issue within the legal system as well as the religious community and the media. Many people ask the question- why did she go to all the hassle of the three separate court battles instead of just having someone from here family help her? Then maybe, it would not have been made into such a big deal. In fact no one would have ever needed to know. Most people feel that Sue took the route that she did in order to set precedents for people in situations like hers in times to come.
I would like to think that Sue Rodriguez helped by setting precedents for people who are to follow, but we will not know for sure if she did until there is another case like hers. Sue would liked to have known that her fight was not without reward, in that she made the subject of euthanasia visible in our country. Only time will tell just how much of a impact this courageous person will have on other's lives.
When I began this paper about a month ago, I was convinced that euthanasia was completely a matter of personal choice, and I was proud of Sue for her determination. But as I delved deeper into the issue it began to get personal and I began to wonder; What if it was my mother facing this choice, would I feel the same way? At first I was confused because I know I would want my mother around as long as possible but I know that I wouldn't want her to suffer. It was this split decision that caused me confusion.
While I was reading over material I came across a sentence that read, "I would rather a loved one deal with euthanasia rather than dealing with the emotional and mental pain an illness can cause."(Weir, 1989) What this person wrote not only made me feel ashamed (for being selfish) but it also made me re-evaluate my opinion. Now I know exactly where I stand; euthanasia is truly a matter of personal choice. Now that I am aware that even if it was my mother that was faced with the decision and she chose, euthanasia; although the pain of losing her would be great, I could take comfort in the fact that she was no longer suffering.