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Passive Euthanasia: a comparative analysis of Judaic and Catholic points-of-View.
Euthanasia is essentially the practice of "mercifully ending a person's life in order to release the person from an incurable disease, intolerable suffering, or undignified death." (Euthanasia) The term euthanasia is derived from the Greek words 'eu' and 'thanatos' which means "good death." The term has most commonly been referred to in relation to intentional mercy killings. (ibid) In other words, the life of the person or patient who is terminally ill or enduring tremendous suffering is ended with the assistance of another person. In short, this means that "A" ends the life of another person, "B" for the sake of "B." (Kuhse, Helga 1992)
In order to fully comprehend the implications of the term euthanasia requires the assimilation of two important aspects. The first is that it involves the taking of a life and secondly that this life-taking is intended to be for the sake of the person who is dying or suffering; this correlation separates euthanasia from other forms of life-taking. Advances in medical science have resulted in the possibility of artificially prolonging a person's life which has complicated and problematized the ethical and moral issues surrounding the already contentious issue of euthanasia. Furthermore, it has also complicated the moral feasibility of non-interactive or passive euthanasia.
In essence there are four types of Euthanasia which are generally referred to. These are active, passive, voluntary and involuntary. Active euthanasia, which is the most contentious form, is when a patient's life is ended in an active and intentional way, usually in order to reduce suffering or terminate what the medial practitioner may view as a hopeless case. Passive euthanasia on the other hand is taking no direct action to end life, while at the same time also not taking steps to extend life unnaturally. "It is when a doctor withholds any means in order to prolong the life of a patient." (Ibrahim, D.E. 2002) Voluntary euthanasia refers to a patient's desire to end his own life. This refers to the personal decision by an individual or patent to terminate his or her own life. Involuntary euthanasia refers to the non-involvement of the patient, usually because he or she is not capable of making any decisions; for example when the patient is mentally ill or in a coma. (ibid)
The euthanasia debate which if often heated and controversial, is part of the larger "right to die" debate and is related to civil, personal freedom and liberty issues. In terms of a secular viewpoint and from the stance of legal and moral issues alone, euthanasia relates specifically to personal and individual freedom and should, in these terms it is argued, be morally and legally permissible. This usually refers to instances when the patient is terminally ill or is suffering with no medical hope of relief. However, in the religious and non-secular context, active and passive euthanasia become severely problematic issues. The religious domain, particularly with regard to the dominant world religions, does not see euthanasia as separate from the larger spiritual dimension. Consequently, the theological and moral implications of any form of life-taking, including euthanasia, are contrasted with religious teachings that emphasize sanctity of life and the relationship between the individual human life and God.
The implications of a religious perspective are that, according to both the Judaic and Catholic perspectives and law, the patient does not have the sole right to his or her life and this life is, in a religious sense, an endemic part of the religious context from which it came. This viewpoint of course relates to the specific contact of each specific religion which this paper will attempt to elucidate.
Therefore any decision pertaining to euthanasia must be considered within the ambit of these larger theological issues, perceptions and laws. Whereas, in secular terms, the decision about active or passive euthanasia is a matter of personal and individual liberty; in a theological context this debate takes place against the background of a much broader and more inclusive dimension of thought, ethics and action. This background is essentially the same for both religious groups under consideration. From the Judaic and Christian points-of-view, euthanasia can only be considered on the basis of the sanctity of life as well as the importance of the dying process in a theological context. This is a crucial aspect in which there are broad similarities but also subtle differences between catholic and Jewish points-of-view.
In this regard the scientific and medical advances that have characterized the last century have increased the possibilities of euthanasia that these religious groups have to deal with in terms of the ethics and morality of death and dying. This is especially the case when it comes to artificial life-support systems.
2. Brief background
Every society has certain principles and rules aimed at the prohibition of the taking of life. However, there are differences and variations within these views according to tradition and culture. In Western history and tradition there is evidence of various approaches to both active and passive euthanasia. For example, " ... In Greek and Roman times such practices as infanticide, suicide and euthanasia were widely accepted." (Tait. E.) An exception to this was the Greek Physician Hippocrates (460-370 BCE), who famously stated: "I will not prescribe a deadly drug to please someone, nor give advice that may cause his death." (Euthanasia: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) This oath emphasized the value of the preservation of life which was to characterize both Judaic and Christian theology.
During the course of history there have been various secular and theological approaches to euthanasia. For example, the humanist, Thomas Moore (1478-1535) defended euthanasia. This was related to the ideals of compassion and care for those in pain and suffering. (ibid) This might have been a necessary humane approach in an age without the benefits of modern medicine.
In general the rise of Judaism and Christianity intensified the view that all human life was sacred and that the taking of life was irreligious. Western Historians claim that "Judaism and the rise of Christianity contributed greatly to the general feeling that human life has sanctity and must not deliberately be taken " (Kuhse, Helga 1992) The rise of these religions not only emphasized the importance life in a moral sense but also placed the taking of life in a specific theological context. "To take an innocent human life is, in these traditions, to usurp the right of God to give and take life. It has also been seen by influential Christian writers as a violation of natural law." (ibid) Therefore the taking of life in any form was counter to the ethics and Law of the Church and contradicted the essential relationship between man and God. The long history of the euthanasia debate is therefore characterized by its express condemnation under Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the implementation of this view into social law.
3. Active and passive euthanasia.
As stated, active euthanasia refers to the taking of life by performing a specific act such as administering a lethal dosage of medication in order with the explicit intention of ending life which is deemed to be either terminal or for other merciful reasons. Passive euthanasia on the other hand is non-active. " Passive euthanasia involves not doing something to prevent death, as when doctors refrain from using an artificial respirator to keep alive a terminally ill patient. " (Kuhse, Helga 1992)
While passive and active euthanasia may seem to be similar in terms of ethics -- they both involve the termination of life -- yet there are essential differences. The main difference in passive euthanasia is that the patient is killed by the disease or ailment and therefore dies by natural causes; whereas in active euthanasia it is the physician who in actuality terminates the life of the patient. This distinction is described by ethicists as follows.
Some ethicists argue that since the goal of both active and passive euthanasia is the patient's death, there is no moral difference between them. Most ethicists, however, draw an important distinction. When the physician withholds or with-draws treatment, the patient is killed by the disease, whereas when the physician gives a lethal injection, the patient is killed by the physician.
(Gordon H.L. 1998)
However, there is a counter argument that views both active and passive euthanasia as both morally culpable. As one study states: "One reason why so many people think that there is an important moral difference between active and passive euthanasia is because they think killing someone is morally worse than letting someone die. But is it? Is killing, in itself, worse than letting die?" (Baird & Rosenbaum, 1989, p. 47)
Baird and Resenbaum make the point that "... is the cessation of treatment, in these circumstances, if it is not 'the intentional termination of the life of one human being by another'? Of course it is exactly that, and if it were not, there would be no point to it. "(ibid)…[continue]
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