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Euthanasia Essay, Research Paper

INTRODUCTION It is hard to open a newspaper in the United States today without finding at least one article that has some bearing on the end-of-life debate. Perhaps Dr. Jack Kervorkian, a retired pathologist, has helped another person commit suicide, or a famous person with AIDS has written about the agony of the terminal stages of this terrible disease. Maybe the Pope has threatened to excommunicate any catholic that joins a right-to-die organization or a court has overturned another law banning physician assisted suicide. We are constantly bombarded with stories of people s end-of-life decisions and sometimes these issues may strike close to home and we must make a choice. Euthanasia, one of the words associated with the end-of-life debate, means different things to different people. The word is loaded with historical and emotional connotations. The dictionary allows for much interpretation: The painless killing of a patient suffering from a painful and incurable disease, but stops well short of covering the always-changing practice of euthanasia. (Webster s 1995). For example, not everyone that requests euthanasia today is a patient, or suffers from some incurable disease. Modern medicine has made it possible to keep people alive far beyond our ability to comfort them. The practice of euthanasia has long been accepted and considered merciful when applied to farm animals. The vet knows when to stop treatment and shoot the horse to prevent undue suffering and save money. Only when euthanasia is applied to humans does our certainty waiver. The issue becomes murky, and we do not know how to behave. On the farm, there is sadness at the lost of a fine animal but the farmer knows he has done the right thing. There is rarely as much certainty with doctors, patients, and courts when making such choices that deal with people. Today many terminally ill people are requesting euthanasia because modern medicine can keep them alive but it cannot give them a quality life. For a long time death was determined by the absence of heart function. Now that doctors can keep the heart functioning, death is determined by absence of brain function. The technology that has made it possible for doctors to maintain the body has created as many problems as it has solved. Many people do not want their bodies kept alive if they cannot enjoy the things that made their lives meaningful. Others are in such unbearable pain that death is a welcomed release. These people want the choice to end their lives when their situation becomes unbearable.(Roberts / Gorman 1-2) Recently, a Canadian woman has brought the issue of physician assisted suicide to the front pages of North American newspapers. Sue Rodriguez s story posted the question that is at the forefront of the euthanasia debate. Should people unable to commit suicide be able to enlist the help of a doctor to do so? Sue Rodriguez was diagnosed with ALS(Lou Gehrig s disease) in the early 1990 s. ALS is a disease that attacks the nervous system but leaves the mind alone. Rodriguez s doctor predicted that she would probably have two to five years to live. She faced a death of either choking or suffocation when she finally lost control of her neck muscles. Sue decided she wanted to live as long as possible, but when death was inevitable, she wanted to die with the help of a doctor. She was hoping to avoid a frightening and painful end. She went to court to challenge Canadian law, under which helping a person commit suicide was a crime punishable by 14 years in prison. She lost her lower court battles as well as her appeal to the Supreme Court. Sue Rodriguez did not simply battle ALS; she fought the forces in society that controlled her life. During the last 18 months of her life she was inundated with letters, calls, and opinions. She became the focal point of heated discussions and political maneuvering. She kept her fighting spirit and her humor even as she lost the ability to eat, comb her hair, and talk. Some believed that Rodriguez had the right to make a decision about the manner and timing of her own death. They believed that, because she would not be able to take her own life, she deserved the help of a doctor to ensue a peaceful death. Others were concerned that Sue Rodriguez would be the first of many such deaths and that by legally sanctioning her death, the courts would pave the way for the elderly and the disabled to be eliminated. They felt participation by doctors would cause society to lose their trust in health care. On February 12, 1994, Sue Rodriguez died. She had indicated that her death would occur with the assistance of a physician. Identifying this doctor would have meant jail time so he remained anonymous. Her death further forced the question of euthanasia out into the open (Roberts / Gorman 3-5). Euthanasia is not merely a current topic. People have been debating over it for years.HISTORY OF EUTHANASIA As far back as 500 B.C, people were contemplating euthanasia. The actual word euthanasia finds its origin in Latin were it translates to good death. In Athens, magistrates kept a small supply of poison in case anyone wanted to die. All you needed was official permission to use some. Euthanasia was also accepted in ancient Rome. The great philosophers such as Plato and Socrates felt euthanasia was useful both to soothe dying people and to get rid of deformed of sickly children.

After the Roman Empire converted to Christianity the general attitude towards euthanasia changed drastically. Acts of suicide were seen as murder, which is a serious sin. The church made no distinction between regular murder and euthanasia. If a person was known to have committed suicide, they were denied a Christian burial and all their possessions were confiscated. After the fall of the Roman Empire the Catholic Church controlled most of the civilized world. The church began to present martyrdom as a virtue of which suffering is a key part. People who took part in euthanasia were seen as weak. Any person who committed suicide or took part in euthanasia were seen as sinners and promptly excommunicated. After the Middle Ages, science dispelled many myths about the human body. Doctors were able to dissect cadavers and learn more about disease and internal organs. This led to the human body being viewed as more of a machine than some mystical creation. In the 1700 s and 1800 s doctors were able to forge a more trusting relationship with their patients. This along with their newfound knowledge allowed doctors to council their patients on their choices when faced with a deadly disease. Slowly, people began to stop seeing euthanasia as a terrible sin. In 1901 a New Jersey court ruled that suicide was not a crime because there was no way to punish the offender. In 1906 an Ohio bill was introduced that would legalize euthanasia in some contexts. The bill was defeated 78-22. There was widespread support for mercy killing but it was still seen as murder and people were persecuted. In 1913, the president of the American Medical Association said that any doctor taking part in euthanasia would be seen as demeaning his profession. Despite this, the number of people taking part in euthanasia continued to rise and lawmakers were forced to take some kind of action. Many groups were formed to support euthanasia as a humanitarian act. Rev. Francis Potter formed the Euthanasia Society of America in 1935. Polls taken during this period showed that people were evenly split on the issue. From the 1950 s to the present time, doctors have been making huge strides in the area of medicine. Medical technology has made is possible to sustain life when death would have been almost sure. Since doctors are now able to sustain life almost indefinitely, people are now living longer. While people are living longer they still suffer from terminal diseases that have no cure and cause much pain. Euthanasia is an important issue in our lives and is still highly debated. (Kohl 136-139) TYPES OF EUTHANASIA Euthanasia has many different forms, which led to it being a complicated issue. If we understand all its forms, we will better understand its implications to our lives. Active, Voluntary, Direct:This is death both chosen and carried out by the patient. The most familiar form is an overdose left near the hand of the patient. It is a matter of personal request and liberty. It is suicide. This overdose is usually administered by a doctor which raises some serious questions. Most ethics codes for doctor state any action taken must benefit the patient. Is death a benefit?Passive, Voluntary, Direct:This choice would be made far in advance by exacting a promise that if and when the patient was unable to give himself the overdose, a friend would do so for him. In this case the patient gives to others the discretion of when to end his life. Passive, Voluntary, Indirect: This, like the second form, is done for, rather than by the patient, but with his prior consent. A written directive called the living will is used which gives the doctors the order to end treatment. Since the patient s doctors have this in writing, it is usually followed. Passive, Involuntary, Direct:This is the form or procedure in which a simple mercy killing is done on behalf of the patient without his prior consent. Instances of this would be when an idiot is given a fatal dose, or when a man getting burned alive is shot in the head. This may be the simplest form of euthanasia but it has posed the most problems in courts. Passive, Involuntary, Indirect:This is the letting the patient go tactic being carried out everyday in our hospitals. Nothing is done for the patient s grave condition, other than making him comfortable. What is done is done for him rather than in response to any request by him. This tactic is very vulnerable to criminal neglect and malpractice lawsuits. (Baird / Rosenbaum 88-91)

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