What is Euthanasia?
By definition euthanasia is “the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit.”
Thus, if a person’s death is not intended, there is no act of euthanasia. Historically this has been an open and closed topic: euthanasia has been against the laws of the land around the world, if not in practice, at least in the courts.
In 400 B.C. when Greek physician and the father of medicine, Hippocrates, wrote the famous Hippocratic Oath, it was clear that the role of physicians was to heal and not to harm. One phrase in the oath states, “I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel.” Thus, even though a patient might suffer, it was not considered a possibility to end life before it ended naturally.
Down through history in the Western world any discussion of voluntary euthanasia was quashed with the thought that the laws and the traditions required protection of life and taking life either by suicide or assisted suicide was a punishable act.
In the 20th century there were notable stands taken in favor of euthanasia. In 1920 a book was written and published entitled “Permitting the Destruction of Life not Worthy of Life,” written by Alfred Hoche a medical doctor and professor of Psychology at the University of Freiburg, and Karl Binding a professor of law from the University of Leipzeg. This book argued that patients who asked for death assistance should, under carefully controlled conditions, be allowed aid in dying. This book was later used as support for Nazi Germany’s involuntary euthanasia program.
In 1935 The Euthanasia Society of England was formed to promote the practice. And shortly thereafter in Germany, as WWII began to unfold in Europe, Hitler ordered widespread “mercy killings” of children considered “life unworthy of life.” These included imperfect newborns––those showing signs of mental retardation, displaying physical deformities, or other symptoms and conditions as specified by the Reich Health Ministry. Hitler’s euthanasia program quickly expanded to include older disabled children and adults. If a medical condition was incurable, the person was required to die a “mercy death.”
In following decades as the world deplored Hitler’s use of the program, euthanasia was considered illegal and immoral. However as medical expertise grew and many people were able to live many years with incurable conditions, or individuals experienced a high degree of pain and suffering in their poor health, the question once again arose. Was it moral and legal to end a life mired in suffering? On whose authority could such a death occur?
Dr. Jack Kevorkian became an outspoken proponent of assisted suicide in the case of such suffering and was eventually imprisoned in the U.S. for giving lethal injections to persons requesting them. Today there are countries and several states in the U.S. where the laws have been written to allow assisted suicide in certain situations. The practice is closely monitored where allowed. It requires the request of the patient and is not decided by a third party. In addition, there are opportunities for individuals to write advance directives for their own medical treatment at end of life to avoid long months on machines that keep the body alive when conscious thought is no longer possible.
What are the arguments for euthanasia? Proponents argue that it provides a way to relieve pain and suffering when quality of life no longer exists. It frees up medical service and saves the expense of care for those who have no hope of recovery. They argue it is a rightful choice made by an individual.
Those who are against the practice of euthanasia say it devalues human life. They also argue that it can quickly deteriorate as it did under Hitler to be a way to eradicate human life and control health care costs. They say that doctor’s roles should not include the taking of a human life under any circumstances and that the entire idea is a step toward non-voluntary killings.
Another argument against euthanasia comes from various belief systems. They state that human life is sacred, and a gift given by God. It is immoral to take another human life or to help an individual take his or her own life. Natural end of life should be in the hands of God alone.
There is no doubt that this discussion will continue. As our medical capabilities improve we will be able to sustain life longer and longer. The question for some is how long they want to live if the quality of life is no longer good. Is it moral to end a life filled with pain and suffering? What is the role of the medical community at the end of life and whose rights are uppermost? It is a moral and ethical question that will need to be answered by each individual heart and mind and one that will come before governmental decision-makers for many years to come.
Please write to us with your thoughts and tell us of your experiences, if any, on this delicate subject.
Are you ‘for’ Euthanasia, or ‘against’?
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