Euthanasia is a Moral, Ethical, and Proper Social Policy
When it is carried out with a competent physician in attendance and appropriate family members understand the decision and the desire of the ill person -- or there has been a written request by the infirmed person that a doctor-assisted death is what she or he desired -- euthanasia is a moral, ethical and proper policy. It offers a merciful end to a painful, hopeless and incurable illness or otherwise tragic situation. This paper argues that euthanasia is ethical and moral and moreover, notwithstanding objections from some individuals based on religious beliefs, is a perfectly honest and acceptable end to a life that is unwilling to go through a tortured and painful last few days.
The Literature on Euthanasia -- Public Opinion
Public opinion has varied over the years as to the morality and social acceptability of euthanasia. Some recent polling by established, highly credible polling agencies have found that for the most part, the American public supports the policy of euthanasia. In the Gallup poll taken in 2006, six in ten Americans support euthanasia. The article published in the Gallup website on June 10, 2006 noted that Gallup has asked the following question since 1996:
"When a person has a disease that cannot be cured and is living in severe pain, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed by law to assist the patient to commit suicide if the patient requests it?" (Carroll, 2006, p. 1).
In 1996 about half of Americans (52%) agreed with the question, saying, "yes" in their answer. In the time frame, 1997 and 1999, at the time that controversial physician Jack Kevorkian was in the news for assisting "…over 130 patients with committing suicide," about 6 in 10 Americans supported what Kevorkian was doing (Carroll, p. 2). Then in 2001, the percentage of Americans supporting euthanasia rose to 68% but that percentage declined to the "mid-60% range from 2002 to 2004"; in 2005 it declined further to 58% before rising up again in 2006 to 64% (Carroll, p. 2).
In 2006, the PEW Research Center for the People & the Press reported "…fully 70% [of those Americans polled] say there are circumstances when patients should be allowed to die"; in the same poll, 22% said that doctors and nurses should do whatever they can do "…to save a patient" (PEW, 2006). In that same poll -- that surveyed 1,500 adults -- only 46% approved of laws that allow a doctor to help patients concluded their lives, and 45% were opposed (PEW, 2006).
More recently, the Gallup News Service reported that 45% of Americans polled in 2011 believe that euthanasia is "morally okay" while 48% of Americans see euthanasia as "morally wrong" (Gallup, 2011). Gallup broke the poll down by political affiliation showing that while 51% of Democrats believe euthanasia is "morally okay" only 32% of Republicans agree that euthanasia is morally acceptable. Fifty percent of independents indicated that euthanasia was morally acceptable (Gallup, 2011).
The Literature on Euthanasia -- Moral Semantics
An article in the peer-reviewed journal Bioethics posits that there is a "moral fiction" associated with the difference between a situation where a doctor withdraws "life-sustaining treatment" -- such as pulling the plug from the machine that was artificially keeping the patient alive -- and when a doctor "…intentionally administers a lethal dose of medication" (Miller, et al., 2010, p. 453). In other words, Miller and colleagues argue that while there seems to be a big difference between the two, it boils down to "moral fiction" (Miller, 453)
To illustrate their point, the authors present the story of John and Sam, both 50 years of age, and both were involved in a terrible auto accident that left them quadriplegics and "dependent on a ventilator to breathe" (Miller, 453). Two years later Sam was able to breathe on his own but John is still dependent on the ventilator. In time, both decide they do not care to go on living. John persuades the doctors to let him die peacefully (after they are sure he is competent to make such a decision), but when Sam asks for a lethal dose of medication to end his life the doctors refuse to go along (Miller, 453).
Why help John but not Sam? This is the crux of the matter vis-a-vis assisted suicide. In helping John, the doctors "…are omitting to continue life-sustaining treatment" but they are not "performing voluntary active euthanasia" (Miller, 453). Instead, their conduct is described as "passive euthanasia" since they are not technically killing John; moreover, these clinicians believe that are not "…morally responsible for a death-causing act" because competent patients have a right to "refuse unwanted medical treatment" no matter what it is (Miller, 454).
Contrasted with John's situation, Sam is asking the clinicians to kill him; and if they "deliberately administer a known lethal dose of medication" that is intended to take Sam's life they would be "morally responsible" for taking a man's life (Miller, 454). The Netherlands and Belgium are the only two countries where Sam could be put to death by a doctor the way he wished to be killed, the authors report.
The bottom line for the authors in this article is that even though "…giving a patient a lethal injection feels different from turning off a ventilator" and that some commentators argue that there is a difference on "professional integrity" between the two ways of euthanasia, Miller fails to see any "meaningful difference" in what doctors are permitted to do (458). There is a potential for abuse in either case, Miller concludes (460), especially if the patient having the plug pulled on life-sustaining services is incompetent. Moreover, once people see the "moral fiction" for what it really is, it will be "difficult to continue to pass the fiction off as truth" (460. In other words, assisting a person in his or her suicide is euthanasia, any way it is accomplished. It is hard not to agree with Miller and colleagues, given that death is death and killing is killing whether pulling a plug or administering a lethal injection; and both strategies, if done with proper family support and justifiable circumstances, is morally acceptable.
The Literature on Euthanasia -- History of Right to Die Movements
Political Science professor Susan Behuniak argues that in the fierce debate of doctor-assisted suicide in America there has not been sufficient attention paid to the "split" between disability rights activists who "invoke human rights to vehemently oppose euthanasia" and those "progressives" supporting the right to die who also invoke "human rights" as an argument (Behuniak, 2011, p. 17). In essence, this scholarly article in the journal Politics and the Life Sciences is saying yes, there is a divide between conservatives and progressives (as noted in the Gallup Poll referenced earlier in this paper) but there is another argument in this national debate. That other argument is between progressives -- one side in the disability activism camp, totally against euthanasia, and the other using human rights as a justification for allowing doctor-assisted suicide (Behuniak, 17).
On page 18, Behuniak notes that both sides in the progressive activist community use the term "dignity" freely and frequently. As in the previous scholarly article, sometimes the debate boils down to semantics. "Dignity" to those supporting physician assisted death is related to the fact that death "liberates" the seriously ill from "the indignities of illness" and is the "emblematic justification" as to why terminally ill adults should be allowed to make such a dramatic decision (Behuniak, 18). On the other hand, opponents of euthanasia from the disability rights movement see "dignity" as something of an insult; they say that according to the values of and use of "dignity" by the right to die community, living with a disability must then be "per se an indignity"; hence right to die folks are being discriminatory against disabled folks (Behuniak, 18).
Behuniak offers a bit of history for perspective on the issue by first referencing the origins of the Euthanasia Society of America (launched in 1939). At that time the society was advocating that it was "humane" to "hasten the death of suffering patients." But conservatives and those touting moral issues were opposed to the society and even progressive people looked askance at the notion -- promoted by the society's president -- that "painless killing" of "born defectives who are doomed to remain defective, rather than for normal persons who have become miserable through incurable illness" (Behuniak, 18-19). Given that this remark came around the time of Nazi Germany's combination of euthanasia, eugenics, and genocide, "the timing could not have been worse," Behuniak remarks (19). The potential for the abuse of humans, given the Nazi madness and the Euthanasia Society's provocative goal, was all too obvious and did not go over well in the U.S.
By 1976 "The Society for the Right to Die" was founded and advocated "mercy killing" as an ethical way to end suffering, and in 1980…