The ongoing debate about physician-assisted death continues to elicit varied reactions globally, with proponents arguing that individuals have an overwhelming basic right to die at a time of their choosing, and in a mode of their own choosing, when confronted with a terminal illness while euthanasia opponents argue that there exist no moral justification for terminating life before God’s opportune time (Smith, 2006).
Euthanasia, the act of ending life, can be voluntary or involuntary, passive or active, but proponents and opponents have largely progressed arguments and counterarguments based on the holistic approach of the term and the resulting effects on the state of the victim, medical professionals, and family members.
But while voluntary euthanasia – that is the occasioning a person’s death with his or her consent – continues to draw varying levels of acceptance depending on the reasons advanced for undertaking such an act, involuntary euthanasia is almost treated as murder even when the act of ending life prematurely produces a greater good to the individual or family members.
This paper purposes to argue against the view that physicians should be allowed to assist the terminally ill die instead of allowing them to suffer the full consequences of a terminal illness.
Proponents of physician-assisted death argue that the act of ending life should be enshrined as a private matter of self-determination and personal beliefs in as much as it is done to curtail the suffering of an individual from a terminal illness (Smith, 2006). It is indeed true that many terminal illnesses, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, and Parkinson’s disease, considerably diminish the quality of life of victims to a point of rendering them vegetative.
As such, it may seem plausible to end the suffering when the victim is personally-determined to do so and on the sad admittance that no cure will be forthcoming (Karlsson et al., 2007). However, mercy-killing cannot be a private matter of self-determination and personal beliefs since it is an act that requires the input of a medical professional to make it possible and a complicit society to make it acceptable.
In some instances, the victim is so vegetative that it becomes impractical to make sound decisions on his own, causing family members to intervene and order the termination of life. In such circumstances, euthanasia cannot be termed as a private matter of self-determination and personal beliefs.
Medicine and law are the fundamental institutions charged with the responsibility of maintaining the dignity and respect for human life in a contemporary pluralistic society (Karlsson et al., 2007). Of course there exist various medical conditions that threaten the quality and dignity for human life, but medicine and physician expertise should be geared towards improving the quality of life rather than making death a purely technical issue in addition to stripping it of all its humanity and value.
According to Karlsson et al (2007), “…euthanasia is morally wrong according to religious beliefs, medical ethics, the sanctity of life or the intrinsic value of nature and its purposefulness” (p. 616). When and if a person is dying from a terminal illness is not in the hands of medical practitioners to decide since life is God-given.
In consequence, medicine, law, and physician expertise should be used to improve the dignity and respect for human life rather than being used to control the time, place, and manner of our death so as to make it as cheap, stress-free, and efficient as possible (Smith, 2006).
When physician-assisted death is permitted, “…there is a potential for abuse and development of a gradual change in indication for euthanasia” (Karlsson et al., 2007, p. 617). The potential for abuse and the gradual shift in expectations, norms, and attitudes held by society towards the terminally ill may propel a situation whereby euthanasia is viewed as a cheap remedy to the suffering of individuals and family members.
The credibility of physicians and healthcare facilities will automatically suffer when victims are allowed to end their lives assisted by medical professionals. Morally, it can never be a medical professional’s responsibility to cause deaths in humans no matter the situation due to the sanctity of life.
The scenario will attract grave moral ramifications when societal norms and values are oriented towards viewing death as a largely technical issue, not mentioning that there exist no standard to evaluate who should live and who should die (Deigh, 1998). As such, the task for physicians should be limited to offering solutions through which the terminally-ill can be assisted to live a quality life rather than being facilitated to die for the reason that they are in severe suffering.
The risk of feelings of guilt and strain among those charged with making the decision for applying euthanasia is yet another factor why physician-assisted killing should not be supported.
The doctors, staff members and family members may display guilt feelings arising from the fact that they were liable for causing the death of a terminally-ill patient even though the patient could have eventually died from the disease. There is also the risk of making wrong decisions regarding a patient’s chances of survival since cases have been reported of patients who ‘miraculously’ survives the terminal illnesses.
Euthanasia is a terminal solution that cannot be reversed at all costs, hence feelings of guilt and strain may be overbearing when it is later revealed that such an individual had a chance of surviving (Deigh, 1998). For family members, the decision to go for euthanasia places an unreasonable burden on the one making the decision especially if the victim progressed into a vegetative state without making the decision on his or her own volition.
Many opponents of euthanasia take cognizance of the fact that the victim may not necessarily express a true wish to die (Karlsson et al., 2007). A terminally-ill person’s wish to die might be influenced by a myriad of other factors rather than the intensity of the suffering and an honest desire to end the suffering. For example, society’s norms and values, family members’ attitudes or financial constraints may adversely influence a terminally ill patient to yearn for voluntary euthanasia.
Such a plea might not, on a deeper psychological level, be a wish to end the suffering by death, but a cry for assistance and attention. Additionally, a terminally ill person, in his right sense of mind, may not be in a position to genuinely express his desire to end life without interference from the doctor’s presumed advice and the attitudes of family members (Smith, 2006).
As such, it is not only wrong to conduct euthanasia on the premise that the victim is necessarily expressing his true wish to due, but it is improper to commence mercy-killing based on superfluous factors that have little regard to the sanctity of life. Many victims ask for euthanasia after they realize that the disease has become an overbearing burden to family members, healthcare system and the society.
Such a factor is first and foremost catapulted by a wish of not being a hindrance, rather than a justifiable wish to end life. In consequence, it becomes difficult for physicians to evaluate patients for euthanasia based on such extraneous factors, hence the immediate need to do away with euthanasia. The task for physicians should be to alleviate or treat the symptoms that causes the terminally ill to feel depressed and burdensome so as to assist them live on and die a ‘natural’ death (Karlsson et al., 2007).
In line with the above argument, it should not be a task for physicians and the healthcare system to assist the terminally ill die. Doctors and other medical professionals are put in a rather awkward situation when they start making decisions on ending other people’s lives, and when such decisions are not backed by any medical standards and ethics (Karlsson et al., 2007).
According to the authors, “…if you would want to kill someone because of that person’s suffering, you do not need to be medically trained, so there is no reason to give this task to the healthcare system” (p. 617).
The argument reinforces the fact that it should not be the function of medical professionals and health facilities to decide on administering euthanasia since the act goes against the basic tenet of the medical profession – that of saving lives. As such, associating the medical profession with any act of killing only serves to erode the good public image and professionalism largely bestowed on the practice.
It is true that many terminal illnesses cause feelings of hopelessness and prolonged degradation of quality of life, but to kill an individual merely because he has lost meaning in life or his medical condition has rendered him hopeless is synonymous to admitting the hopelessness of physicians in offering hope to the incurably sick (Deigh, 1998).
In consequence, physicians need to focus their energies on assisting the terminally ill to lead a better life rather than contemplating on how to assist them die. The terminally ill patient should be assisted to wait for death to come naturally.
Some proponents of physician-assisted death have used the utilitarian approach to root for legalization of euthanasia. This view is based on the fact that euthanasia should be administered if it leads to the greatest good for all concerned (Deigh, 1998). However, there exist serious flaws in the argument, particularly due to the fact that the ‘greatest good’ is often evaluated in terms of material benefits while the sanctity and gift of life cannot be expressed in similar terms.
A terminally ill patient may be evaluated on the financial costs caused to the family, pain and suffering, and the scope and nature of the ailment, but these factors do not form the basis for calculating the net value of life since life is God-given.
In equal measure, individuals cannot sit back and evaluate the total good of destroying a life since life cannot be replaced once it has been taken. Several religious doctrines also teaches us that there is no greater good in life than the right to life, thus there is no justification whatsoever for its premature termination (Smith, 2006). To terminate life prematurely is to play God and the victim of a terminal illness cannot attain any greater good when life has already been taken.
Consequently, utilitarianism cannot be used to justify the act of involuntarily or voluntarily ending life to reduce suffering. It is a futile exercise for physicians to adopt the utilitarian argument that assisting the terminally ill to die has better consequences than assisting them to lead more palatable lifestyles for the rest of their remaining days.
From the discussion, it is evidently clear that the adverse social, moral, and medical ramifications of legalizing physician-assisted death far outweigh the benefits (Deigh, 1998).
There is no greater benefit that an individual can get in this world than the right to life, thus the debate that physicians should be allowed to assist the terminally ill patients die fails to hold any water when ethical, religious, and the medical practice standards are considered. Instead of playing God and deciding on when and how to end the lives of the terminally ill, physicians must direct their efforts towards ameliorating the various risk factors that drives patients to yearn for death.
The fact that many patients do not have a true desire to die when they request for euthanasia have been well demonstrated. The risks of feeling guilty and strained in the face of conducting mercy killings for the terminally ill may choke careers, not mentioning that the act of euthanasia puts the medical practice in a credibility test. It is God who gives life and it is only God who has the right to take it away.
The dangers of abuse are just too many, and allowing the practice may set a bad precedent for society members and individuals suffering from terminal ailments (Karlsson et al., 2007). In such circumstances, physician-assisted killing should be discouraged at all costs.
Deigh, J. (1998). Physician-assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia: Some relevant differences. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 88(3), 1155-1165. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier Database
Karlsson, M., Strang, P., & Milberg, A. (2007). Attitudes toward euthanasia among Swedish medical students. Palliative Medicine, 21(7), 615-622. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database.
Smith, A.M. (2006). Euthanasia: A license to kill? New York, NY: Kingsway Publications