Euthanasia refers to the act of intentionally ending the life of one who is suffering from a terminal disease who has expressed the wish to be assisted to die in order to avoid what is seen to be as unecessary and unbearable suffering. The term literally means "good death" (εὖ + Θάνατος). It is sometimes called assisted suicide or, very often in recent times, it has been (euphemistically) called "dying with dignity." Likewise when a doctor removes treatment, for the purpose of death this too falls under the definition of euthanasia.
For the medical community, this issue brings up tough ethical problems. Does a person have the right to choose death as an option? Euthanasia also raises the idea of whether or not a doctor should participate in such a practice. These are very difficult issues to face, but ones that must be confronted when dealing with euthanasia.
A person must first realize that euthanasia is a subject that is not easily defined. The origin of the word euthanasia derives from two ancient Greek terms meaning good death. The following shows us that there are three categories to which euthanasia can be classified.
- "(1) by an affirmative act designed to bring about death, such as the injection of air into a person's veins;
- (2) by refusing to commence or continue further medical treatment required to maintain life;
- (3) by refusing to commence or continue further, 'heroic' or 'extraordinary' measures, such as the use of a heart-lung machine following a massive stroke."citation needed
These definitions can in term be labeled further as being either euthanasia by action or euthanasia by omission. Euthanasia is not a black-and-white issue and the ethical concerns are even more complicated. As euthanasia has become a more apparent concern the medical community has had to adjust its understanding.
On the surface, euthanasia is a conflict to any physician. A doctor is theoretically obligated to prolong life, not to end it.
"For doctors, this dilemma challenges the Hippocratic Oath which commits them to increasingly incompatible duties-to preserve life and relive suffering. This conflict of conscience is steadily magnified by the swelling numbers of elderly people. In these circumstances, many people fear the prospect of senility far more than they fear death."citation needed
Yet, the argument could be made that a physician is in fact helping another person by assisting in their death. They are relieving the pain of the suffering person. Perhaps this willingness to remedy pain by any means possible is too apparent in this day and age. Suffering and pain are negative realities of the world we live in. Yet, perhaps from an ethical perspective we should see our individual suffering as the cross we must bear. When studying the topic of euthanasia one needs to wonder whether or not people are seeking a short answer for a long on going problem. Thus, the medical community needs to look for further cures, and likewise people should be willing to see a problem through.
Naturally the topic of euthanasia has caused controversy from a religious perspective as well. Christian people see a basic good value in human life and wish to do anything that will preserve life. "Christianity affirms what mankind has said about the inherent value and dignity of human life. It affirms man's basic unity and his living-in-this-world for God and for others, although he has a destiny beyond this world."citation needed The previous statement is one that expresses a Roman Catholic opinion. Yet the same thought is common to all Christians. A very similar opinion is expressed by the Orthodox Church.
"The Church accompanies its faithful from even before birth, through all the steps of life to death and beyond, with its prayers, rites, sacraments, preaching, teaching, and its love, faith and hope. All of life, and even death itself, are drawn into the realm of the life of the Church. Death is seen as evil in itself, and symbolic of all those forces which, oppose God-given life and its fulfillment. The Orthodox Church has a very strong pro-life stand which in part expresses itself in opposition to doctrinaire advocacy of euthanasia."citation needed
The Orthodox Church understands life as a gift from God and that this gift must be valued.
Euthanasia is wrong from the Orthodox Christian ethical perspective. According to the teachings of the Orthodox Church, life must be preserved because it is something that has been given by God. Similarly, human life should be always treated with respect for humanity was made in the image and likeness of God. These are ideas that are often forgotten as people wish to remove their suffering in the most extreme manner.
There are many reasons to which traditional Christianity teaches opposition to euthanasia. Euthanasia is act of killing because it seeks to end life. "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood be shed for God made man in his image." (Genesis 9:6). This means that life is good and that we should not try to end it due to any amount of pain.
From the position of those who favor euthanasia the practice is understood as a means of removing pain. If pain and suffering are understood as being bad then euthanasia must be good. "Pain, suffering, and evil in general, thus all reveal a certain lack of being, a certain negativity which threatens man's being-in-the-world. It forces man to consider himself, to reflect on his mode of being in this world and to contemplate the sorrow of his contingency."citation needed To use the modern terminology, this is referring to quality of life. Supporters of euthanasia feel that if their quality of life is infringed upon they have the right to end their life and to die as they choose.
The advances in medical technology also plays an interesting part in the drama of euthanasia. The greater that the modern advances are becoming the greater opportunity there is to prolong life. "Not long ago, when the point of death was reached, there was usually nothing that could be done about it. Now, due to the marvels of medicine, all kinds of things can help keep people 'alive' long after what used to be the final crisis. For example there is a cardiac 'pacemaker' a machine that can restart a heart that a stopped beating."citation needed This brings the issue to the forefront of whether or not is right to prolong a life simply by medical advancements.
The opposition that is put forth to this argument is as follows; should not we allow a person to die when it is their time and not to prolong their life extensively? Subsequently, is a physician murdering in the strictest sense if he was to withhold the treatment? "The religious person's concern that ending one's life is playing God may seem to be predicated on the indefensible assumption that respecting the natural ordering of events is respecting the divine ordering of events. According to this view, letting nature have its way is interpreted as letting God have his way."citation needed This is rather difficult as one can see. From the definition of the church's teaching it is murder. The doctor had a method of treatment available and did not administer it instead allows the patient to die. Life is extremely important and we must exhaust every possible alternative in order to prolong an individual's life.
The issue of euthanasia in recent years has seen intense legal debates as well. In 1994, the state of Oregon passed a law making euthanasia legal. According to this law if an individual has been diagnosed with a terminal condition, they have the option to request a prescription of a lethal injection. The doctor is legally freed from any liability. In October of 2005, the law went before the U.S. Supreme Court due to intense opposition. However, on January 17, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision in favor of the state of Oregon in a 6 to 3 vote. Legalizing euthanasia is something that presents a new era in the medical world. Besides Oregon, euthanasia is legal to be performed in Holland and Belgium.
Part of the legal ramifications include having a living will. A living will is a contract made while a person is still living. It is a document that verifies the intentions of the person in the event of debilitating injury or illness. It is usually accompanied by a power of attorney. A power of attorney is a contract in which someone is selected to make life and death decisions should the person be unable to. More often people delegate the responsibility to a family member.
Examples in the media
In 2005, the case of Terri Schiavo made headlines. This was the case of a woman who suffered brain damage and was since 1990 was in a lifeless state. Her husband had been petitioning courts to allow him to remove her feeding tube. Finally, in March of 2005, the court sided in his favor, she died shortly after.
There is also the infamous, Dr. Jack Kevorkian who has assisted many patients in their death. Kevorkian has in an eight year period, helped over one hundred people to die by administering different procedures. Very often the person was connected up to a machine that had canister of carbon monoxide. Kevorkian also is known to have injected lethal drugs as well.
Both of these particular cases, Terri Schiavo and Dr. Kevorkian, had highly controversial subjects. The case of Terri Schiavo forced to people to consider the rights of the patient, while Dr. Kevorkian made many examine whether or not a physician has the right to aid in a person's death.
Another critical case that concerned euthanasia was that of Paul Brophy in 1986. Brophy was a 49-year-old man from Massachusetts who suffered an aneurysm, which later that year produced a brain hemorrhage. As a result, he was left in a vegetative state.
"His wife, Patricia, remembered that her husband had told her ten years before... 'I don't ever want to be on a life-support system. No way do I want to live like that; that is not living.' Although he did not talk specifically about whether a feeding tube should be removed, Brophy's brothers, sisters, and adult children confirmed that he would not have wished to be kept alive by a tube."citation needed
His wife continued to argue in favor of the feeding tube being removed, which caused the case to be brought to court. The state had felt that her husband was not terminally ill and that Mr. Brophy had a chance at surviving. It was on September 11, 1986, that the Massachusetts State Supreme Court ruled in her favor. However, the ruling had complications to it and Paul Brophy needed to be transferred to another facility. Eight days after being transferred, he died. This particular case brings an important question to the discussion does the removal of the feeding tube constitute a refusal of medical treatment? The ruling authorities in many states would answer this question as a yes. Despite all that has been done, there needs to be further clarification on euthanasia on a legal level.
Regardless of legal ruling on this issue there will be not significant change from a religious perspective. Christian people, in particular Eastern Orthodox Christians, firmly support the maintaining of human life. Perhaps, if there was a formal statement from the federal government on euthanasia it would motivate the church authority to take a formal position.
Euthanasia is setting many legal precedents as well. The state of Oregon passed a law in 1994 making euthanasia legal. This law prescribed that if a person was diagnosed with a deadly condition then a doctor could give a lethal injection. This law caused an immense amount of controversy that it went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The court would end up ruling in favor of the law in January of 2006.
In conclusion, there are many issues surrounding euthanasia. There are two forms to which an act of euthanasia can take, it can be either active or by omission. Active euthanasia refers to a procedure that will initiate death, while euthanasia by omission refers to something such as refusing medical treatment until the patient dies. When a person examines the idea of euthanasia, it appears as though it should be a contradiction to a physician. A doctor, ideally is sworn to do anything possible to help maintain and preserve life. Yet through changes in the law the medical community is becoming more receptive to euthanasia.