Euthanasia: The Right to Die, the Right to Life -- a Continuing Controversy
The idea of willing terminating an individual's life, even according to his or her consent, remains one of the most controversial "rights" in today's contemporary debate over where the state's ability to intrude upon the individual body begins. As Ronald Dworkin notes in his article, "Sex, Death, and the Courts," it is true that "millions of people think that doctors are murderers if they help patients, even those dying slowly in great pain, to kill themselves." Yet, the American Medical Association confirmed its longstanding opposition to euthanasia, "and most states have made assisting suicide a crime." (Dworkin, 1996) Individuals claim that the state has no right to poke its nose into what they do, behind closed curtains. Yet euthanasia often requires a physician's assistance. Moreover, in legal cases that involve the hospital, the courts are forced the make some determination of what constitutes an individual's right and will over his or her own body. Does such a right also encompass death?
Euthanasia may be, according to some individuals' sense of morality, personally reprehensible. However, despite the discomfort the issue generates in the minds and hearts of individuals, it seems the inevitable, but painful conclusion that one must legally allow for the practice, even while and if one personally rejects it in most circumstances. Dworkin's statement, made many years ago, suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to tackle the issue would bring about "another social revolution," regarding legal notions of life and death. But the debate of how to legally substantiate euthanasia rages on.
Furthermore, the American Medical Association's condemnation of the practice shows that quite often, legal and medical issues are in a state of contention, and ultimately, the morality at stake must be determined, not by the individuals sitting upon the bench or even the men and women wearing white coats in hospitals, but in the minds and hearts of the friends and family who make the decision for their loved one during a time of crisis.
Legal, Rights-Based Arguments For Euthanasia
In his brief upon the concept of assisted suicide, Dworkin states that "the pleadings" recorded in the proceedings "described the agony in which the patient plaintiffs were dying, and condemned the state courts of appeals that "agreed with the plaintiffs that the Constitution forbids the government from flatly prohibiting doctors to help end such desperate and pointless suffering." (Dworkin, "Philosopher's Brief," 1997) This statement is interesting because even the cool language of philosophy is coded in the moral notions of what constitutes a healthy and well-lived life.
Legal, Rights-Based Arguments Against Euthanasia
Of course, one is tempted to say that every individual ought to be the determinant of whether he or she has a purpose and a meaning in life. However, to take this idea to its logical extreme would be to permit individuals such as the Dutch woman, suffering from a lifetime of depression, to obtain medical and legal redress to take her own life. (Dworkin, "Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia," 1997) Dworkin also cites this case in his article on "Assisted Suicide: What the Court Really Said." But he uses this woman as an example of someone whom would not be permitted to legally take his or her own life, given the current parameters of euthanasia law. Here lies the fear of the "slippery slope," that one allowed case will lead to other cases. (Dworkin, "Philosopher's Brief," 1997)
Dworkin's definition of a life lived in pointless suffering thus encompasses the terminally ill in body, not in mind. The Dutch woman might very well argue that she believed that her life was similarly pointless, but due to a suffering of the soul, not the body. She would say that she had the right to take her own life, because she was the individual whom was living it.
Counter Arguments to 'the Dutch Case'
Of course, in response, one might counter that her desire to take her healthy life through an overdose of pills was wrong because of the pain it caused, if not to her, than to her family. But, again to extend one's self on a philosophical tangent, the decisions one makes in life often causes psychological pain and suffering to others. For instance, it causes pain to chose a career that is anathema to one's parent's desires for one's self. But it is certainly not a legally unconscionable action, or even a morally unconscionable action to do so, merely an act of freedom of the will. Does not the overly hysterical parent, in some melodramas say that his or her son or daughter is dead when he or she chooses a mate or a profession poorly?
If this analogy seems callous, it is made, one must hastily add, only to show that the resistance to euthanasia is not simply because the life that is lived is objectionable to the observing individual, and that the suffering individual does not have complete agency to determine what he or she believes is a life that is so unfulfilling that it should only end in death. Surely, we would not like to see a society where healthy individuals could legally contract pills to do away with their lives. Of course, such a 'remedy' is possible, to some extent, but not legally -- the loosest definitions of sanity claim that an individual cannot be a danger to others, as well as to him or herself, to be released from an asylum.
Society as well as the family thus has some stake in the preservation of life, however tenuously, and the law must step in. Because of this stake in preservation of life, the suicide of the healthy, sane or insane cannot be legally regarded as conscionable.
But what of an unhealthy life? Here is the crucial counter-argument to the Dutch case. Even if one does not wish to take Dworkin's view that a painful life lived is pointless, then what of the face of the state and medical community essentially forcing an individual to live a life that is physically painful? Should the state be able to physically force an individual to endure pain, even if physical pain in the form of torture is prohibited for a criminal?
According to Dworkin's contentions about what the Supreme Court really said, regarding euthanasia, "The cases raised, moreover, not only the question of a specific right to assisted suicide, but a more fundamental constitutional issue as well -- how to understand and enforce the 'due process clause' of the Fourteenth Amendment, which declares that states may not "deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law."(Dworkin, "What the Courts Really Said," 1997) "The words 'due process of law' might conceivably have been taken to mean, at one extreme, that government may compromise liberty in any way it likes so long as it follows stipulated procedures of lawmaking in doing so. At the other extreme, the clause might be interpreted to say that judges may strike down any law that offends what they themselves deem to be a requirement of pure justice. But almost every lawyer rejects both those extremes. The due process clause, according to the general understanding, condemns all the laws -- and only the laws -- that curtail liberties that are, in an often-quoted passage from an earlier Supreme Court decision, 'deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition.' But that historical standard is also very abstract and lawyers disagree about what it means."
In other words, the due process clause, in Dworkin's view, substantiates the very abstract claim of some pro-euthanasia advocates that the Court should allow the practice because such a practice is deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition. However, counter-arguments to this idea might say that in other societies, during other historical time periods, child killing at birth was allowed, thus the murder of the self or the physician assisted killing of the self should be disallowed.
Surely, the idea that the state cannot force an individual to endure unconscionable pain might be a better substantiation and method of arguing this point, namely that rather than passing value upon the life itself, the state must look at the actions the individual must take to live, and agree to back away from forcing the individual to live in such a fashion, if the fashion pushes the individuals to extremities of pain, or severely limits the individual's ability to live his or her life in an independent fashion, free of extensive support and the hospital environment?
Even in the last phrase, however, there becomes a difficulty -- for a long-distance runner and professional athlete might find his life unconscionable to live, if deprived of his mobility, but a lifelong suffer of cystic fibrosis might not think the same of a life lived upon drugs and in the environment of a hospital ventilator. Still, the idea of the state's inability to condemn an individual to live in pain, as physically…