By David Conrad
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Euthanasia; according to Funk & Wagnalls College Dictionary, is a painless death; the deliberate putting to death, in an easy, painless way, of a person suffering from an incurable disease. The Webster’s Dictionary also calls euthanasia a painless death; the putting of a person to death painlessly, especially one in a hopeless condition. The question here lies in the ‘incurable and agonizing’; the ‘hopeless’. Are things really so hopeless? Is euthanasia the ultimate option when faced with terminal disease?
Many people would say that they want it to end; ‘it’ being life. They can see no hope in going on. The pain, for them, is unbearable. Does this mean we should purposely clear them a legal path to the cemetery? More importantly, do we want doctors, who have sworn to ‘do no harm’, to administer the means to a patient’s end? How do we justify our family practitioner taking part in this act of euthanasia? The argument has become more complex; euthanasia is a broader subject than just the act of putting oneself out of misery.
There are different types of euthanasia. One type is called passive euthanasia. This is defined as the act of depriving a patient of the necessary drugs or assistance to sustain life, or giving one the means and opportunity to end one’s own life. In the case of an 85 year old Oregon woman, who, while suffering from dementia, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ms. Kate Cheney was refused a lethal prescription by her doctor and recommended for counseling. It was subsequently found, by a psychiatrist, that she was not eligible for physician assisted suicide, (PAS), because she wasn’t insistent upon it, except at her daughter’s coaxing. (Marker, par.135) Ms. Cheney was unable to recall important dates, names, or recent details of personal experiences. She was taken to a psychologist, where she was found to be competent, but influenced by her daughter in her decision making. In the end, a managed care ethicist, overseeing the case, decided she met the qualifications and she was given the drugs necessary to carry out her assisted suicide. (Marker, par. 137) While Ms. Cheney was never administered PAS, she was given the drugs to administer to herself. Because her physician had no direct contact with the method of Cheney’s demise, this would be considered passive euthanasia. Proponents of legalizing euthanasia believe that passive euthanasia cannot be ‘misrepresented’ as murder.
Active euthanasia is when a patient is too ill or incapacitated to employ the assistance of a physician and therefore causes the physician to become directly involved in the process. This is also known as ‘mercy killing’. This was the case in our next example. In the Netherlands there is a type of euthanasia that derives its name from an incident there; “Crypthanasia”, a form of active euthanasia which refers to the euphonizing of the elderly. The incident involved elderly residents of a nursing home receiving active euthanasia by attending physicians, without their knowledge or consent.
(Beaufort, par. 46) There were several violations of the law by these doctors. In 15% of the cases, there was no initial request by the patient for physician assisted suicide, (PAS).
In another 15%, there were no second consultations with another physician, as required by law. And in 7%, only one day passed between the first request and the administering of PAS to the patient. (Beaufort, par. 47) Proponents are concerned that active euthanasia, consented to or not, can be construed as murder in a court of law.
Still the cries come from those who suffer with extreme, ceaseless pain. I know a woman in North Carolina who suffered through pain twenty four hours a day. She often considered herself a burden on those who lovingly waited on her. She lived with rheumatoid arthritis for twenty or more years. In the last years prior to her death, she no longer was able to do even the most basic of tasks without help. The fact is, the disease had deformed her limbs in such a way that she was unable to do anything for herself. Although, while she may have occasionally commented on how she wished the Lord to just go ahead and take her, I know her well enough to know that, no matter the pain she endured, my Grandmother never considered any other exit from this life other than through divine appointment. There is the contingent of Christians out there that believes that any form of euthanasia is wrong.
“The reality may be that we are closer to having a national policy on euthanasia than to having one on pain relief” (Joransen, par.9) There are other cases where the pain seems the sole motivating factor in the decision for PAS. For these cases, the fact is, that today’s advanced medical technology has made adequate steps to alleviate or control 90%-99% of a patient’s pain. (Balch/Waters, par.2) The problem, and quite possibly the reason euthanasia is still so widely discussed, is that this fact is not widely known by either the public or much of the medical community at large. A series on the ‘Clinical Practice Guidelines for Acute Pain Management’ has been produced by the United States Department of Health and Human Resources to correct this problem.
This issue does not end with the pain argument, or the argument of debilitation. It continues with the issue of mental illness. It is shown in studies that 93%-94% of people committing suicide; suffer from an identifiable mental disorder.
(Balch/Randall/O’Bannon, par.3) This is definitely a consideration in the case of a fan and the heavy metal rock group, “Hell on Earth”. A terminally ill fan requested to commit suicide during a live performance in St. Petersburg, Florida to ‘raise awareness’ for the cause of dignified death. (Metal fan set to take own life..,par.1) The authorities shut down the show before it could start. Ha this spectacle been allowed to occur, there would definitely have been some ‘awareness’; of what I’m not sure. The fan went on to thank God for a band like ‘Hell on Earth’, that would give him such an opportunity.
(Metal fan set to take own life.., par.9) That comment alone says something about his mental capacity or lack thereof, as far as I’m concerned. This aspect of the argument speaks to the focal point of why people ultimately choose euthanasia. To have no hope lends itself to psychological vulnerability.
These cited cases could possibly, given the right political climate, be only steps away from ‘Aktion T4’, or the Nazi euthanasia program. (Nazi Euthanasia, par.1) Under this program, many were killed because of their physical deformities, mental illness, etc.
(Nazi Euthanasia, par.7) This was an active euthanasia carried out against unwilling and sometimes unwitting victims. This madness later descended into what is now referred to as ethnic cleansing. This world society we live in is too eager to jump at the quick and easy solution. We seem to have no patience for research that could take us the extra mile, thereby possibly avoiding unnecessarily unpleasant compromises. In the words of C. Everett Koop; “…we must be wary of those who are willing to end the lives of the elderly and the ill…” (Euthanasia, par.1) Whether it is passive or active euthanasia, there os no course of action that does not involve the clear and intentional taking of life. This, under current law, is defined as murder. If we begin to consider euthanasia as a legal option for any reason, we begin to water down the meaning of murder under the law and thereby unravel what is left of our society. Furthermore, doctors are sworn to the Hippocratic Oath, wherein they swear to do no harm. Does euthanasia do no harm? Who are we fooling? Euthanasia is the taking of a human life; an innocent human life, those who are of no threat to others, this is above moral issue, and must consider or any discussion of the issue becomes distorted from the start. (Pollard, par.9)
This leaves the debate about the differences between passive and active euthanasia, as alluded to earlier. This argument goes that, if the patient is released from all life support and allowed to die naturally, that because the physician has taken no direct action to cause death, it cannot be considered murder. Active euthanasia, requiring direct intervention, on the other hand, would be considered murder. I would submit, except in some cases where a living will is established, that there is no difference whatever. With intention as the central concept, euthanasia is caused by what is done or not done. (Pollard, par.4) If I pull food out of the refrigerator and it spoils; then I’m responsible. I physically pulled the food out; I took direct action which caused the food to spoil. What happens if I just unplugged the refrigerator and walk away? ’Am I any less responsible? Pope John Paul II in ’The Gospel of Life’, rejected the idea of there being any difference between the two.
(Dunstan, par.15) This puts medical professionals in a tricky crossfire. It seems in the best interest of the medical profession not to involve themselves any more than they have to, and that furthermore we, the public, wouldn’t want them to be.
A March 2000 Zogby poll asked; “If you had a disease that was fatal and causing great pain and discomfort, which of the following courses of action would you prefer: Physician assisted suicide, wait and let nature take its course, or not sure?” The results show that one in three Americans, if they contracted a painful terminal illness, would consider assisted suicide to dying naturally. In this same poll, 30.4% would have a doctor administer PAS. 63.5% said they would let nature run its course. (Balch/Waters, par.15)
In 2003 Attorney general Ashcroft had asked 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for a reversal of a lower court’s finding that Oregon’s ‘Death with Dignity Act’ of 1994 does not contravene federal powers. In the last five years, 129 people have used this law to have themselves killed. (Humphry, par.100)
There is a definite trends towards the ‘rights’ of those who wish to kill themselves. The bills put forward by those who would advocate such laws are rushed and often ‘riddled’ with theoretical holes that result in several rewrites. No matter how they word it, it is wrong. It is wrong to allow anyone; ever, but especially in this day and age, to kill themselves or anyone else. And it is, at the very least, a waste of any gifted physician’s hard earned, costly education to ask them to do the very opposite of what that education taught them to do. All legal precedent and consideration aside, doctors should, under no circumstances, intervene except to act as an agent of life and health, as their vocation requires. They should never be put in a position by any law where they are asked to cause someone’s death; with the exception of a previously established living will, signed by the patient and free from any legal regulation.
I understand, as a Christian, that in the end times man will gain great wisdom and understanding. I see all the medical advances and wonder why euthanasia is still an issue. We must be wise in our choices. We must consider everything carefully and know that God is watching, and that we will answer for our actions, whether actor or advocate.
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