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Euthanasia also called mercy killing is the intentional practice of ending life so as to relieve pain and suffering of a person (Encyclopedia Britannica). It differs from suicide in that under suicide, it is the person who takes his or her own life. Euthanasia is further categorized in to passive or active and voluntary, non-voluntary or involuntary. Active euthanasia is criminal while passive euthanasia is non criminal. The big debate surrounding euthanasia is whether to consider it as voluntary thus becoming a suicide or involuntary murder. Further, there have been numerous arguments as to whether a certain death could be considered easy, happy, painless or wrongful.
The history of euthanasia stems from historian Suetonius description of Emperor Augustus death as “quick and without suffering in his wife’s arms”. The term entered the medical field when Francis bacon in seventeenth century used it to refer to an easy, painless and happy death in order to remove physical suffering while under a physician.
In current use, it depends in whether a person gives informed consent before euthanasia is applied. In 2003, the European Association of Palliative Care (EPAC) Ethics task Force coined the statement that “medicalized killing of a person, whether involuntary or non-voluntary is murder. Euthanasia can only be voluntary that is with the consent of the patient.” Passive euthanasia involves withholding of common treatments from a patient like giving of antibiotics and which are vital for life to continue. Active euthanasia involves the use of lethal substances or drug to kill the patient.
Despite the many controversies that have been evident in defining euthanasia, the reaction it invokes in people is as diverse. It has found a place among other sensitive issues like abortion. Such issues have further called for voices from the media, politicians, professionals in all fields and the common man.
The legality of euthanasia has also been a subject of controversy since time immemorial. The Roman and Greek empires treated the idea of a “good death” with care. The Athenians for instance could obtain permission to acquire poison with the intention of using it to die. Romans also did not punish those who wished to attempt suicide as long as they were not considered irrational. This continued until Pythagoreans condemned it on a basis that only God had a right to take someone’s life (McDougall et al 2008). Throughout history many people have questioned the legality of euthanasia as well as seeking new way to address the problem. This is still evident by the look of diverse ways in which euthanasia is considered in different countries around the world; some embrace it, some do it partially while others refrain completely.
The timeline on some notable cases that involve euthanasia will help in understanding the difficulties it has caused the society. In 1968, doctors in the Harvard Medical School proposed to include brain death as the criteria upon which end of life could be based. This was the first step to standardize a reference point, the irreversible coma, on which death could be acceptable to all.
The first national hearings on euthanasia in U.S Senate took place in 1972 and was entitled Death with Dignity. It provided a base where professionals and common man held discussion on weighty matters especially the irony of medical advances prolonging a patient’s life yet diminishing his dignity and quality of his life.
1976 saw matters related to death taken to court with the courts allowing the parents of one, Karen Quinlan, to remove her from the respirator. She had entered an irreversible coma and she died later in 1985. Her case became a landmark for euthanasia in many states. This was followed by a number of states in the United States passing laws that would have seen legal standing being bestowed to living rights and advance directives.
All along the Catholic Church under the tutelage of Pope John Paul II was not left behind in the issue. He issued a Declaration on Euthanasia in 1980 which opposed mercy killing but allowed individuals the right to refuse measures for sustaining life. Later on after still numerous debates in many countries, the Netherlands became the first to allow euthanasia by enabling their Supreme Court to allow voluntary euthanasia in 1984.
The early nineties saw a Dr. Kevorkian help his first patient to commit suicide in 1990; he was nicknamed Doctor Death. At the same time, the U. S. Congress made a ruling that allowed competent adults constitutional rights to refuse medical treatment. 1993 witnessed President Clinton and his wife announcing their support for use of living wills as well as advance directives. The following year was characterized by voters in the state of Oregon passing measure sixteen. This was the Death with Dignity Act that was meant to allow physician assisted suicide.
Apart from the United States, other countries like Australia had their share in euthanasia as they put in effect a law in 1996 permitting active euthanasia; it however did not withstand the test of time and was disallowed some few months later. As matters proved more difficult with numerous debates and lobbying, the U. S. Supreme Court would in 1997 allows all states to pass legislation that criminalized euthanasia. One year later, the previously enacted Death with Dignity Act of Oregon was used by fifteen patients to commit physician assisted suicide. In 1999, Dr. Kevorkian was sentenced to between ten and twenty five years in jail for what the jury termed as second degree murder as well as providing a lethal injection to a very seriously ill patient.
The Netherlands officially legalized euthanasia in 2001 while the U. S Attorney General in 2003 challenged the Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. Perhaps the most publicized case of Terri Schiavo in 2005 brought many more people awareness as pertained to euthanasia. Her husband had contested in court for several years to have her tubes removed as her parents opposed the move. His decision however succeeded the circumstances and Terri’s tubes were removed but unfortunately she died thirteen days later. Luxembourg parliament adopted euthanasia law in 2008 as well as did the Washington state and Montana followed suit in 2009 (Procon, web).
If this trend remains, it therefore seems that almost all countries in the world will one day allow euthanasia to be practiced. This will involve support from all legal parameters and will be enacted as law.
But even if euthanasia becomes accepted legally, there are some who still feel it is morally wrong. The ethical debate over euthanasia is usually very intense in many countries especially in the developed ones. Both the United Kingdom and the United States of America have had their share of the debate with the issues finding space in to politics and law. Although much has been written about euthanasia, there has been a tendency to only relate the issue to religion while other aspects are ignored. Ethics deals with the moral of a subject in terms of whether something is good or evil, right or wrong, acceptable or not et cetera (Keown, 2002).
The question as to where to place euthanasia along moral lines is divided with those who support it arguing that it is an act of mercy, kindness and compassion. Those in opposition primarily and finally judge euthanasia as murder (Cavan & Dolan, 2000). It therefore would not be conclusive to argue that everybody has accepted euthanasia regardless of whether it is ethical or not.
According to a survey done in respect to acceptance of euthanasia by the general public the results show a growing level of acceptance (Top News, 2011). The research was carried out in twelve Western European countries by first analyzing the European Value Surveys that had been done prior to the year 2000. From more than forty six thousand interviewees the average acceptance of euthanasia was only a mere twenty two percent. These results in comparison with previous data indicate that there is a growing support for euthanasia as well as individual rights to such matters. Overall in a number of western countries, there has been a notable increase in euthanasia acceptance as the study showed and it further proved that pressure is still building up for euthanasia to be legalized all over (Oxford, web).
Acceptability by the general public alone should not be the reason to legalize euthanasia. A consensus must be in place from every person in whatever field or level in society for it to be declared legal. Many reasons for doing so have been brought forth and unless a person understands them critically, he or she will be at a loss in contributing to this debate. Foremost is the aspect of reducing the unbearable pain in a patient. Modern medicine has made advances to this end by use of drugs. However, a number of people still consider the “drugged state” of a person as lowering their dignity despite its well meaning intention. But considering there are levels where pain becomes more excruciating, then it will be proper to give euthanasia room.
Self-determination or right to make a choice about life is another reason which allows euthanasia to take place. The questions to deal with here are about who actually possesses that right. Legal processes will however try to protect the person assisting with death since the dead have no right. There has also been arguments as to why people be forced to live. In such a circumstance the most appropriate answer will be a big no. this again may pave a way for euthanasia to be legalized as keeping a person who wishes to die alive may be inhuman and cruel (Global Politician, web).
Euthanasia in political arena has created both agreements and rivalries. Many politicians would rather steer clear from this sensitive field than tackle it straight forward. This is evident in democracies all over the world since they believe in giving everybody certain rights of choice. Political debates have been held starting with Anna Hall’s movement of 1906 which sought to legalize euthanasia in Ohio and Iowa states. Other public figure such as Clarence Darrow and Jack London pioneered the same movement in Canada. In the process many notable cases have emerged like the Karen Quinlan of 1976 and Terri Schiavo case of 2005. In addition, policy has also derived its share as in the Washington Versus Glucksberg case of 1997.
States like Montana, Oregon, Texas and Washington have been bombarded by numerous movements seeking legislation and eventual legalization of euthanasia (The Rotarian: Jun 1990.Pg 20). Some have seen success while others got thrown out and had to await a future date as the issues became subjected to voting. In all these events important figures were involved to provide a collective voice to the authorities upon whom legalization was sought. Their opinions also differ according to religion (ThirdWay: Nov 2008, Pg 42), culture and political affiliations.
Politicians have contributed much to the subject and this may either make them popular or break their public relations. This is evident in parliaments in United States and United Kingdom whereby some politicians are taken in bad light if they try to interfere or introduce with the existing laws concerning abortion. All this has taken place because of the nature of the subject and whether it ought to be legal.
In conclusion, it may be necessary for all voices to be heard before a hasty decision is made on whether to legalize euthanasia or not. Since each individual has a right of expression I think the best way to answer the question of whether euthanasia should be legal be subjected to free and fair voting and the outcome be upheld.
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