Physician Assisted Suicide
The debate on physician assisted suicide, or euthanasia, has always been focused on the question whether doctors should be permitted to actively assist terminally ill patients end their lives. Arguments on each of the two sides of this issue are based on philosophical, religious, as well as legal viewpoints. There are philosophical theories on morality that aim at finding moral justification for euthanasia. Theories like utilitarianism which hold that the right action is the one that produces ultimate good for all find euthanasia morally acceptable. Opposition to physician assisted suicide has always been based on the fact that an action should not be judged by it consequences but rather by its morality. However, in a country where patients have a legal right to refuse a treatment procedure regardless of the consequences of this decision, physician assisted suicide at the patient’s request should be legalized. Terminally ill patients should not be forced to experience a deplorable quality of life filled with intractable pain and misery when there is no hope for recovery. When terminally ill patients would rather prefer to end their lives than continue to endure meaningless pain, euthanasia provides the most humane way of dying with dignity.
In defense of euthanasia, Stewart Alsop, a journalist of great respect, describes the pain and misery of a patient called Jack he shared a hospital room with while battling a futile battle with a rare form of cancer. The story of Jack is a heartbreaking tale of a man begging for death and everyone around him wishing he or she could hand it to him willingly if the law allowed it. It is a tale of futile torment that justifies Alsop’s comment that “No human being with a spark of pity could let a living thing suffer so, to no good end” (Right Thing, p. 308). Jack does not suffer because of lack of treatment but because all the medical knowledge in the world can not help him anymore. From a utilitarian point of view, his death would eliminate the great pain he is suffering and consequently reduce the amount of misery in this world. Jack’s wife has also become a victim of his suffering along with the entire hospital staff and other patients who watch him agonizing with pain day and night. The resources being used to maintain his misery could be used for pre-natal and infant care and not only save lives but improve the quality of other people’s lives too. In Jack’s case, euthanasia would promote the interests of everyone concerned without violating anyone’s rights and thus morally acceptable.
Opponents of euthanasia like Richard Doerflinger in his article “Assisted Suicide: Pro-choice or Anti-life?” base their argument on several presumptions. The most common one is the assumption euthanasia denies an individual the freedom to choose between life and death. They consider euthanasia an intrinsically immoral act of killing regardless of the victim’s consent. The patient, by the virtue of being terminally ill and in constant pain, is considered to be incapable of making a rational decision in a matter of life and death therefore assisting him or her commit suicide robs him or her freedom to make an informed choice. Doerflinger’s argument is simply going around circles in the issue of freedom because every physician well understands when a patient has crossed the line between recovery and terminally serious sickness and would not assist a person with chances of recovery or prolonged survival to commit suicide. The argument on robbing the patient freedom to make an informed choice does not take into consideration the fact that the doctors involved do not simply act on a robotic impulse but actually consider all factors before letting the patient die with dignity.
Doerflinger considers Euthanasia in the Jewish and Christian contexts in the way that they “have shaped the laws and mores of the Western civilization and the self-concept of its medical practitioners” (Right Thing, p. 311). He bases the sanctity of human life on the religious assertion that humans are created in the image of God thus sacred and can not be terminated with or without the victim’s consent. However, there are many agnostics, atheists, and others who do not ascribe to Judeo-Christian faiths who should not be condemned to a life of unbearable pain on the basis of other people’s beliefs. This line of argument fails to consider the fact the acceptance of Euthanasia does not arise from a lack of respect for human life but from a strictly personal and autonomous wish of person to die quickly than suffer in pain with no hopes of recovery.
The “slippery slope” argument discussed by Doerflinger assumes that acceptance of physician assisted suicide “will lead to destructive expansions of the right to kill the innocent” (Right Thing, p. 315). This basically means that physicians would start killing patients without permission. This is not a valid concern because without the patient’s request, and a thorough examination of his or her case to establish the futility of continued suffering, the doctor would not provide suicide assistance. The doctor’s fundamental role is to extend the patient’s life, not to be a serial killer.
In conclusion, assisted suicide should not be considered as a breach of professional integrity because the physician only assists to relieve the patient from unending pain and agony. The Physician is never in it for personal motives but for the good of the patient and those around him or her. It should also be noted that the resulting death in cases of assisted suicide is as a result of the underlying disease not because of the withdrawal of treatment by the physician. Therefore rather than keep terminally ill patients suffering in pain and agony, doctors should assist them in ending their lives should they request for it.
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