Euthanasia (aka mercy killing) is the deliberate killing of another person with the motive of ending his or her suffering. This can be achieved by doing something (e.g. a lethal injection) or by failing to do something (e.g. withholding life saving treatment) in order to cause or hasten death.
It is morally equivalent to assisted suicide which is where someone who knows what is about to happen allows someone to kill themselves or provides the means for them to do it.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide do not allow people to ‘die with dignity’.
People do not lose their dignity as death approaches. Our dignity and value as a human person does not depend upon the ‘quality’ of our lives; it is found in our very being. Even if we face death emaciated or delirious or unable to feed, speak or toilet ourselves, we always retain our dignity.
‘Dying with dignity’ is a phrase used by pro-euthanasia people. It should mean accepting the reality of our human condition and showing reverence and gratitude for the gift of life. In reality, dying with dignity involves going through the dying process in a way which reflects our great value as a human being: accepting the love and care of those around us and waiting for death to come naturally.
By contrast, euthanasia and assisted suicide are tragic rejections of the truth about the value of our lives and the care of others. It is an ‘undignified’ way to die.
In Oregon, USA, where physician assisted suicide is legal, the most frequently mentioned end-of-life concerns are: ‘loss of autonomy’ (97%), a ‘loss of human dignity’ (92%), and ‘decreasing ability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable’ (86%).
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are not the “compassionate responses” to suffering.
Genuine compassion moves us to do all that we can to eliminate the suffering — but never to eliminate the sufferer! Compassion literally means ‘to suffer with’. It is the resolve to genuinely offer the best assistance you can to relieve their physical and emotional anguish and to help them maintain hope and self esteem.
In Oregon, nearly half of people initially requesting assisted suicide changed their minds after treatment for pain or depression commenced, or referral to a hospice was undertaken. Where no active symptom control was commenced, only 15% changed their minds.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are much more than personal choices.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are public acts with public consequences. One person assisting in the death of another is a matter of significant public concern since it can lead to tremendous abuse, exploitation and erosion of care for the most vulnerable people among us.
Even when euthanasia and assisted suicide are freely requested by competent persons, the choice to kill oneself gives dangerous public witness to the fallacious idea that there is such a thing as a ‘life not worth living.’ It is a simple step to make this judgment about the lives of other sick, disabled or elderly people in similar circumstances. Vulnerable people also become more susceptible to lowered self esteem and hopelessness, and often feel pressured into euthanasia to avoid becoming a burden to others. In other words, the ‘choice to die’ becomes a ‘duty to die’.
Young people who may be suffering psychologically and emotionally also may feel that they have a ‘life not worth living’.
In 37% of deaths occurring under the Oregon assisted suicide law, concern about being a burden on family, friends and caregivers has been expressed as a reason for requesting assisted suicide.
Legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide inevitably lead to abuse of vulnerable persons
Overseas experience attests to the reality of a ‘slippery slope’ from voluntary to involuntary euthanasia. Medically assisted killing in the Netherlands was originally intended to be tightly regulated and strictly limited to adults who were able to make a free and informed request to die.
However, the practice of euthanasia has now expanded to include many people who have not made that request including the unconscious, disabled babies, children, and people with psychiatric illnesses and dementia.
Logically, if euthanasia is permitted out of ‘mercy’ for suffering people who request it, in ‘fairness’ it will eventually be extended to suffering people who are unable to make a free and informed request.
Government-sanctioned studies in the Netherlands have found that: 50% of cases of assisted suicide and euthanasia are not reported, more than 50% of Dutch physicians feel free to suggest euthanasia to their patients, and 25% of these physicians admit to ending patients’ lives without their consent (more than 1000 people each year).
Legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide would affect the provision of good care to the very ill and dying.
Palliative care cannot flourish alongside euthanasia and assisted suicide. The medical profession’s deep commitment not to abandon those who suffer has been a powerful motivation in the development of modern medicine. Legalised killing and assisted suicide, however, discourage alternative approaches to suffering, such as the provision of good palliative care and pain management. This is increasingly likely in our rapidly-aging society with escalating health care costs, where there is increasing pressure to consider the economic impact of patient care.
In some instances in Oregon, patients have been told by their health insurance provider that a costly drug prescribed by a doctor to treat the patient’s illness would not be covered but inexpensive lethal drugs for assisted suicide would be covered.
Some doctors would be corrupted by having a “licence to kill”.
Legally sanctioned medical killing would corrupt doctors both individually and as a profession. Doctors see themselves as the bringers of life, hope and healing. But once they intentionally kill their patients, however wellmeaningly, they become deliverers of death. The goals of medicine become not only life, health, and comfort, but also death. Such doctors can no longer promise to always protect and promote the life and health of their patients.
In the Netherlands, where euthanasia and assisted suicide are available, 60% of doctors do not report their cases of assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Giving necessary pain relief is ethical and legal. It is not the same as euthanasia.
There is a real difference, both ethically and legally, between intending pain relief and intending death.
Doctors will often foresee that giving increasing doses of pain-killers to comfort a patient may also have the side effect of shortening that patient’s life. But where the intention is to relieve suffering and not to hasten death, these doctors are not performing euthanasia; they are providing good palliative care.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide would not give dying patients better control over their treatment
The current prohibition of euthanasia and assisted suicide does not prevent dying patients from exercising choice at the end of life. Treatments which have become, or are likely to be, futile or overly-burdensome may be ethically and lawfully withheld or withdrawn at a patient’s request, even where it is foreseen that death may come sooner as a result of this choice.
To forego such treatments is not the equivalent of euthanasia or suicide, but an acceptance of the human condition in the face of death. This is not a choice for death, but a choice about how to live while dying. It is not a refusal of life, but a refusal of overly burdensome or futile treatment.
No one wants to suffer or to see their loved ones suffer. This is the main reason why many Australians are said to support voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide and why there are ongoing attempts to legalise it in Australia. However, many of those who claim to support voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide do not fully understand or appreciate what euthanasia really is. Like other life and death issues, euthanasia evokes many emotions, memories, prejudices and misconceptions which can cause us to accept myths over reality, and sadly, death over life.