Saturday, April 25, 2015

Legalized Murder or Death with Dignity?

The once unthinkable practice of euthanizing the helpless is becoming a reality. The recent resurfacing of the question of the morality and necessity of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia has stirred a great deal of debate amongst Americans. The arguments are highly passionate and emotional, as both sides fight for what they believe to be fundamental rights. Although the euthanasia advocates are correct in their concern for human rights, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are ultimately unethical practices that condone and promote murder. They force doctors into contradictory roles, where they both save lives and end them. This contradiction is unacceptable as end-of-life treatment continues to improve.


In order to properly determine what the physician’s role is, it is best to understand their historical role. Traditionally, the purpose of the doctor is to heal. We see this exemplified in the Hippocratic Oath. Since the 5th century B.C., The Hippocratic Oath has been used to define what it means to be a physician. Although it has recently been made optional, doctors were once required to swear the oath, and in doing so would vow, “And I will not give a drug that is deadly to anyone if asked [for it], nor will I suggest the way to such a counsel” (Miles xiii). This directly contradicts the more recent claim that doctors ought to assist their suffering patients in ending their lives, whether directly or through prescribed poison. In her article, Dr. Fiona Randall explains that the doctor’s role cannot include ending the lives of his or her patients, “while the role of the doctor has changed and may continue to develop it cannot (logically) extend to intentional killing or assisting with killing. If so extended then the concept of what it means to be a doctor must also radically change, and more than two millennia of settled public and medical opinion must be reversed” (Randall 324). As Dr. Randall just explained, this evolution in the doctor’s role would require them to first pursue their patient’s best interests, and then assist in their death. This greatly alters their original purpose in society.

In both the act of euthanasia and in physician-assisted suicide, the doctor plays a key role in ending another’s life. In euthanatizing someone, the doctor terminates a person who is either suffering, or else deemed “unworthy” to live (Smith). Similarly, physician-assisted suicide is directly linked to the doctor, as he or she gives the ill the means to end their lives. The Oregon Right to Life Organization defined physician-assisted suicide as involving, “a physician prescribing lethal drugs for a patient with the knowledge that the patient intends to use the drugs to commit suicide” (Oregon’s Assisted Suicide 157). In both cases, the physician is involved in the murder of an innocent life. This act does more than simply contradict their role as healer; it is an unethical practice that turns them into murderers. As the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force articulated, “Euthanasia is not about the right to die. It’s about the right to kill” (International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force 58). It is true that at times the patient requests their own death, but this does not excuse the moral culpability of the doctor.


Those who support euthanasia and physician assisted-suicide believe they are acting from compassion, but in reality their arguments are based on inaccurate assumptions. For example, the right-to-die activists are convicted because they don’t believe any person should be made to suffer unnecessarily. However, in his article “Four Myths About Doctor-Assisted Suicide,” bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel revealed that only twenty-two percent of patients requesting euthanasia are enduring immense pain. Another misconception is that the majority of dying and terminally ill patients desire this option, but are unable to receive it because of current laws. Again, Emanuel affirms that the contrary is true, “In Oregon, between 1998 and 2011, 596 patients used physician-assisted suicide -- about 0.2 percent of dying patients in the state. In the Netherlands, where euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide have been permitted for more than three decades, fewer than 3 percent of people die by these means” (Emanuel). Consequently, the “right to die” does not fill an urgent social need. Rather, it causes a great deal of problems for both patients and doctors. In addition to this, the opportunity for abuses by family members and physicians becomes a threat once euthanasia is legalized.

The many dangers of euthanasia are obscenely large. For instance, this option would open the door to countless abuses. Suddenly, doctors and family members would be able to make critical choices for patients, and while we hope that they would keep the patient’s best interest in the forefront, in reality many would not. We have the Terri Schiavo case as evidence as to the misuses euthanasia allows (Lynne). Physicians agree that this is a very real concern surrounding the legalization of euthanasia, according to a survey administered by C Seale Centre for Health Sciences, “The most common qualifying statement concerned the need for safeguards to prevent abuse, made by 45% (46%) of those in favour of assisted dying...Others in favour of assisted dying made comments about the need for nonmedical people to carry out euthanasia or assisted suicide or for individual doctors to have a right to opt out [27% (25% weighted)]” (Seale). The evidence shows that not only are the ill and aging alarmed at the prospect of legalized euthanasia, but so are the physicians. Similarly, this new choice belittles the value of a person, making the terminally ill ponder if their loved ones would be better off without them. It guilts many disabled and ill persons to die rather than burden their family members and society. As the president of Not Yet Dead, an organization that fights in defense of the disabled, Diane Coleman explains, “Bioethicists are now writing about health care economics and the idea that some of us, whose health care services will cut into insurance company profits, have a duty to die, voluntarily or not” (Coleman 133). The driving force behind euthanasia is to provide the suffering with choices. Yet if it were to be legalized, many would feel pressured into choosing an immediate death.


Finally, those requesting physician-assisted suicide aren’t always the terminally ill; many are simply suffering from depression. According to palliative care nurses Vicky Robinson and Helen Scott, many of the patients requesting this option have not been evaluated by a psychiatrist, “They therefore concluded that, as many cases of depression are missed, it is possible that some depressed patients received lethal prescriptions and that patients without a mental disorder at the time of receiving the prescription may have become depressed by the time they ingested it” (Robinson and Scott). Anyone who is requesting the drastic measure of suicide should be examined by a mental health professional. Dr. Tal Bergman Levy explains that the mere request for assisted suicide should alert the doctor to deep mental anguish and is cause for a psychiatric evaluation, “Under such circumstances, it would be fitting for the psychiatrist to be skeptical of a patient’s desire to die rather than automatically accepting and cooperating with the patient’s request for assisted suicide” (Levy 406). Legalizing this would provide an out for the mentally ill and depressed, who given the proper treatment, are able to live full and long lives.
It is fair to desire a comfortable and dignified death for the suffering. Because of the advances modern medicine has taken, now a peaceful death is possible for the multitude. In his article Hospice Care Can Make Assisted Suicide Unnecessary, deputy editor Joe Loconte explains that “there is another way to die – under the care of a specialized discipline of medicine that manages the pain of deadly diseases, keeps patients comfortable yet awake and alert, and surrounds the dying with emotional and spiritual support” (Loconte 97).  According to Loconte, every year about 450,000 people die in the comfort of a hospice. This situation provides a dignified solution for the dying. Rather than being injected with a high dose of poison and dying painfully, the patient is surrounded by compassionate, certified caregivers and given the necessary medication to spend their final days comfortably and peacefully.

Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are harmful practices that endanger both doctors and patients. Although many politicians are pushing for its legalization, euthanasia contradicts the physician’s traditional role in society and endangers patients. It is horribly demeaning, as a value is shamelessly placed on human life. With the improvement of end-of-life care, any act to end the lives of the ill is unwarranted. Rather than promoting euthanasia, our nation’s focus should be on continual advancement of end-of-life treatment, providing those in difficult situations with optimal care and treating them with the dignity they deserve.
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