Euthanasia Sue Rodriguez has reminded us all of our own
mortality and our need to think carefully about the kind of
society we want to live and to die in. Sue Rodriguez was
known through the media, and her well spoken and eloquent
speeches. People painfully in support of what she believed
in, watched as her strength was sapped by the devastating
disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and we were moved
by her clear thought and her bravery as a person facing
death. Here was a woman who acted on her beliefs with
courage and tenacity and whose grace has enriched us all.
It is no defense to point to the fact that a person has
requested to be killed: "No person is entitled to consent
to have death inflicted upon him, and such consent does not
affect the criminal responsibilities of any person by whom
death may be inflicted upon the person by whom consent is
given," which seems to mean that no one has a right to
consent to have death inflicted on him or her. In addition,
if a person causes the death of another, the consent of the
deceased does not provide the person who caused the death a
defense to criminal responsibility. Is there a difference,
do you think, between a person who, at a dying person's
request, prepares a poison and leaves it on the bedside for
that person to take, and a person who helps the patient to
drink it or who administers it directly at the request of a
dying person who is unable to take it personally? Is there,
in short, a real distinction between killing and letting
die? Well, this is the difference between passive and
active euthanasia, and if you believe in euthanasia, you
must decide which one is correct or even accept both to be
correct depending upon the situation. We must carefully
think through a number of conceptual issues. What is a
person? What is death? How does the difference between
active and passive function in arguments for and against
euthanasia? Is there any difference between killing and
letting die? Suppose the doctor agrees to withhold
treatment... The justification for his doing so is that the
patient is in terrible agony, and since he is going to die
anyway, it would be wrong to prolong his suffering
needlessly. But now notice this. If one simply withholds
treatment, it may take the patient longer to die, and so he
may suffer more than he would if more direct action were
taken and a lethal injection given. This fact provides
strong reason for thinking that, once the initial decision
not to prolong his agony has been made, active euthanasia
is actually preferable to passive euthanasia, rather than
the reverse. Individuals have the right to decide about
their own lives and deaths. Denying terminally ill patients
the right to die with dignity is unfair and cruel. The
golden rule requires that we allow active euthanasia for
terminally ill patients who request it in certain
situations. People have the right to die with dignity and
lucidity. Gayle Stelter (Vancouver Sun) writes, "For almost
seven years I have been living with cancer, mostly joyously
and gratefully, but gradually seeing the disease
encroaching relentlessly on my once healthy body.
Throughout these years, I have thought long and hard about
death and I've discovered that it's not the prospect of
death itself that is so frightening, but the process of
dying. So to give myself courage, I have held an option in
reserve. When I can see no quality ahead, when I am capable
of bidding my loved ones a coherent farewell, when I am
still in control of my resources, I will enlist someone's
help to speed me on my journey. ... For those of us who may
choose to leave while there is still an element of control,
of coherence, may we be fortunate to have a friend, a loved
one, a health professional who will use their gifts in
order that we may be excused. To deny such expert guidance
in this last rite would be both heartless and inhuman."
Another person I had read about states: "I have multiple
myeloma...a rare bone marrow cancer...[that] destroys the
blood, bones, immune system, kidneys and sometimes liver
and spleen. The worst of it is the disintegration of the
skeleton...Unless one is lucky enough to die of sepsis
first, the death is long and agonizing. The act of sitting
up can fracture the vertebrae and lifting the dinner tray
can fracture both forearms. Who deserves that? For what
principle?" I believe that there are some circumstances
when euthanasia is the morally correct action. I also
understand that there are real concerns about legalizing
euthanasia because of fear of misuse and/or overuse and the
fear of the slippery slope leading to a loss of respect for
the value of life. We do need to proceed with caution.
Euthanasia is homicide. Some homicides are justified. Life
at some point can become so unpleasant and so hopeless that
virtually no one would wish to continue it, and the
opponent of euthanasia must face up to this fact honestly.
Suffering can take many forms, physical, mental and
emotional. Not all of these are relevant to euthanasia - I
have not heard anyone suggest, for example, mercy killing
for the clinically depressed - but many are, in particular
physical agony and the emotional despair of extreme
disability. People have always killed themselves, for
reasons that seemed good to them, and it has long been
recognized that laws against suicide serve little or no
purpose. This issue remains a live one with respect to
euthanasia because it is plausibly pointed out that, if you
have a legal right to commit suicide, and you are
physically unable to do so unaided, it seems unfair to
prosecute someone who helps you. Suffering and suicides are
perennial factors, but today's conditions have added a host
of other complications.


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