“We don't let animals suffer, so why humans?” -Stephen Hawking Good Death H

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From 5th-Century B.C. to 1st-Century B.C., the ancient Greeks and Romans,  began adapting to the ideas of suicide and assisted suicide.  Written records from the time show that physicians had to take an oath stating that they were forbidden to give a fatal drug to a patient, even if a patient asked for it.  Yet, many of the physicians broke this oath and medicines, like opium based painkillers, were given to many patients with terminal illnesses.  The idea of assisted suicide was supported by the people because they liked to have a choice to die if that meant that they didn’t have to suffer long term agony and discomfort.  The medical term generally used to mean the act of being killed by a doctor using lethal drugs is “euthanasia.”  This term comes from the Greek words “Eu” (good) and “Thanatosis” (death) meaning “Good Death.”  Once Christianity was introduced and was practiced widely, many opinions on this topic began to change.  People started to believe that life was a gift from God, and it became a sin to voluntarily end it.  As the first letter to the Corinthians chapter 3 verse 17 says, “If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him.  For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.”


The Christian idea about suicide continues to influence the debate on assisted suicide today.   For example, the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law states that “[euthanasia] violates God's authority over life, which is God's gift.”


Moving past the question of whether assisted suicide is moral is the question of whether it is beneficial for the family of the client.  In an essay from Lone Star College, Esther B. De La Torre discusses the differences between killing versus relieving a person from a painful death, asking the question of whether assisted suicide is alleviating a person from suffering and pain or if it’s murder.  De La Torre, a doctor who was board certified in Family Medicine from San Jacinto Methodist Hospital, addresses the question of euthanasia.  She explains how painful it is for people with fatal illnesses to continue living with the help of modern technology and medicine even though there isn't a chance for them to survive.  This article provides the reader with reasons why assisted suicide should be an option.  For example, the amount of physical, financial, and emotional suffering would decrease for the families.  She stresses the idea that assisted suicide can save a family from “financial ruin” and huge hospital bills.  A doctor’s job is generally to relieve their patients of pain, and if dying is the only way to do that, it should be brought to the patient’s attention as an option.  “[The right to assisted suicide] would allow them to leave this earth with dignity, save their families from financial ruin, and relieve them of insufferable pain,” concludes De La Torre.

 

Think about dogs.  When a person gets a dog, he begins to fall in love, and it becomes a new member of a family.  There is even a famous saying, “a dog is a man’s best friend,” and almost anyone who owns a dog will agree.  As owners, we watch the dog grow and live and we take it wherever we go, and we do different things throughout the years.  This is similar to how we treat a family member.  When the dog gets sick, the owner would take it to the vet and get medicine, just like any person would for a family member.  Some people even take the same medications as dogs.  When the dog gets old and starts to show signs of coming to the end of its life, a majority of people decide to put the dog “down,” or kill it, so that it doesn't suffer.  It seems cruel to let a member of a family, even if that member is a pet, live in pain.  So why is it any different for a person?


Ryan T. Anderson, an author for Newsweek, isn’t buying the argument that families or individuals should be allowed to end their life, even if that life is full of pain; he argues that assisted suicide or physician-assisted suicide is never the correct choice and is a kind of a murder.  He clarifies how euthanasia works.  When a person is sick, and a doctor realizes that his illness is fatal, the doctor can then offer the choice of giving the person lethal drugs.  These drugs are given as a prescription of pills that initially make the patient unconscious, then dead.  He explains how most people expect to be surrounded by loved ones or people that they trust when they die, but when a patient chooses assisted suicide he is usually given the pills and is left alone in his room to die.  According to Anderson, this is not a pleasant way to go. He says, “Human life doesn’t need to be extended by every medical means possible, but a person should never be intentionally killed.”  Now you might agree with Anderson that the practice of euthanasia is identical to murder, but there is a flaw in his argument.
Saying that doctors don’t have to use every means possible is like saying that when they run out of logical things to do, they let the person die.  So what if the patient and the doctors know that there is no other option?  Do they let him suffer and wait for him to die?  Stopping treatments and medicines is practically equal to intentionally killing someone, but with perhaps more pain.  The only difference is the pills.  The pills solidify the death and ensure when and where it will happen.  The drug works in large doses and causes seizure-like effects on a human.  The other option is to wait and wait, continuing to pay hospital bills when the patient and his family know that his death is imminent.  So why let him suffer?


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In the 17th Century, laws were initiated prohibiting suicide and assisted suicide.  Soon after, between the 17th and 18th Centuries, Renaissance and Reformation writers started to object to the laws made by the church.  Although these writers “challenged the authority of the church” (Michael Manning, MD) and altered many people’s opinions, the idea of euthanasia remained fairly limited.  Later, it became a more relevant topic and places everywhere started deciding whether suicide should be legal or not.  “An important milestone in the euthanasia debate was the isolation of morphine in the 19th Century…” states Manning.  Clearly, the growth of technology and science of this time period helped usher in more liberal, open views about choosing assisted suicide when having a terminal illness.


However, by 1885, there was a backlash.  In 1885, the American Medical Association officially rejected euthanasia.  Afterwards, many states in the US tried to legalize it but were denied by the government and conservative people.  Due to the number of religious and traditional people existing in America at that time, assisted suicide was considered murder.  Throughout history there has been a battle over laws that legalize euthanasia, which have arisen more in the past fifty years or so.  In 1952, there were groups of people that petitioned the United Nations to amend the Declaration of Human Rights so that it included euthanasia.  After a while, a handful of states in America and countries around the world succeeded in trying to get the government on their side and make euthanasia legal.  Now, however, 37 US states still have laws prohibiting assisted suicide and only 5 states and Washington D.C. have legalized it. This backlash has had a huge impact on the legalization of euthanasia today, leaving most states with prohibition laws.


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While thinking about whether euthanasia is a good choice or not, we are forced to think about if it is fair in all situations.  Usually, when we hear the term “assisted-suicide,” we picture a person consciously asking his doctor to help him die instead of waiting and suffering.  In this case, the doctor and patient are in agreement about the situation.  A question that comes to mind while thinking about this is if the person is unconscious, then what is the option?  A large number of people sign a living will, which is a document that states how long the patient wants to stay alive on life support when they are in a coma or unresponsive.  When this happens, the doctor has to fulfill the patient’s wishes to take the patient’s life away.  So why is euthanasia any different?  The doctor in both situations has to “kill” the patient and in both situations it was the patient’s choice.  According to a page on PBS, in order to follow through with someone’s living will, the doctors must ensure that the patient is unable to make medical decisions and has a terminal illness.  Other qualifications depend on the laws of the particular state in the United States.  The question remains the same in all situations: is ending someone’s life because he is terminally ill the correct decision? 


This question is relevant in all scenarios including how old the patient is and whether he is conscious or not.  A survey done by Pew Research tested what people of different ages think about euthanasia.  By the end, they found that  more of the younger people think it is wrong.  However, surprisingly, the oldest group of people (65+ years old) had the highest percentage of 56% saying that they disapproved of having the choice of euthanasia.  As these senior citizens got closer to death, their opinions started to change.  Between the ages of 30-64, people who do not accept the idea and practice of physician-assisted suicide reported a similar percentage between 44% and 47%.  The overall result showed that 49% of adults disapprove of having the choice of euthanasia.  You would think that as people got older they would start to dread the pain of being old and, eventually, dying, and that they would be more open to the idea of choosing when to die.  Yet, most older people think differently.  This could be because as they reach their death they value all the time they have left.


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To make a change in government to allow physician-assisted suicide, activists have used heartbreaking stories about people with fatal illnesses who were denied the option of euthanasia.  One example is the story by Kevin Drum, whose father-in-law, Harry, sick and frail, suffered from multiple myeloma, a cancer in the bone marrow.  After about 7-8 years of treatment that weren't successful, the cancer had spread to the rest of his body.  Drum’s wife noticed after about 7 years that “he looked like someone in a lot of pain but trying not to show it…”  Harry was a retired physician who often saw his patients suffer in agony as they awaited their deaths, and he decided that he would take the offer of the lethal drug if he ever found himself dying of a terminal illness.  Unfortunately, that time came for him, and he decided that euthanasia was the path he wanted to take.  However, Harry was unable to receive assistance in his suicide.  He lived in California where assisted-suicide is illegal, so instead of getting help from doctors, he had to commit suicide by himself.  To do it, he put a bag over his head and opened a tank of Helium.  He used Helium because breathing it doesn’t feel like suffocation, it simply makes you unconscious and eventually kills you.  This is not an ideal way for someone to die.  The assistance of a doctor would make this process of dying more peaceful and easy.  To Harry’s disadvantage, he was not offered assistance and had to take his own life by using a cruel, miserable method. 


Harry’s situation was unfair because dying with assistance should have been his choice, but the doctors didn’t give him that option, so he had to take his life without any assistance.  It should be up to the doctors to decide whether it’s valid to give the patients the option of euthanasia and to set the guidelines, but the patient should ultimately decide whether to follow through with it or to keep living; it is a personal choice.  If the doctors know that there is no further treatment possible and no other medicines they can try, and they have consulted and gone over the case with many other doctors or physicians, then they should be allowed to offer lethal drugs to the patient.  The case should also be looked over by a certain number of professionals and get a specific number of opinions before making the call.  The other possible issue with assisted suicide is how long to wait. If the doctors know that there is not a way to save the patient, then how long do they wait before telling the patient and offering euthanasia?  How long do they treat the patient?


In physician-assisted suicide cases, doctors play a strong role in the decision-making process for patients.  The doctors are the ones who determine if the patient qualifies for this option.  In one specific case, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a medical pathologist, helped assist many of his patients to death using lethal drugs.  He was a doctor working in Oregon during the time that the government was still debating whether euthanasia should be legal or not.  When he first became a successful doctor, he used euthanasia very often, but later in his career, it became illegal in the state of Oregon.  Even though the proposal for the right to assisted-suicide was denied by the state, Kevorkian did not stop helping his patients to die.  He was brought to trial for doing so and was sentenced to 10-25 years in prison.  To him, it was not a fair trial. He wouldn’t have continued providing drugs if he thought it was wrong.  He was considered a euthanasia activist.  His ideas about euthanasia were spread all around the country and he was put onto magazine covers and was referred to as “Dr. Death.”  In this situation, he wasn’t the person dying, but the laws prohibiting euthanasia still greatly affected him.


After much debate, we are still left with the question: What is murder?  The definition from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is, “the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought.”  Other common definitions include the word “premeditated” which means that someone planned on intentionally and consciously taking the life of someone else.  While Anderson and religious Christians would agree that this is exactly what euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide is, the term “murder” is more frequently used to describe a hateful act of violently killing a person out of anger or dislike.  Even though Anderson would be correct that euthanasia is a planned killing of a person, having good intentions changes the entire meaning of the situation.  Like De La Torre acknowledges, when a doctor offers a patient lethal drugs, his intent is to save the patient and his family from experiencing pain, emotionally and physically, and financial misery.  So when we ask the question of what is the lawful crime of murder, the idea and practice of physician-assisted suicide would not apply.  If you would spare your pet from misery, why wouldn’t you do it for a loved one?






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