Regulation and Reform of Euthanasia
Throughout the twentieth century, major scientific and medical advances have greatly enhanced the life expectancy of the average person. However, there are many instances where doctors can preserve life artificially. In these cases, where the patient suffers from a terminal disease or remains in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), the question becomes whether to prolong their life even though it may consist of pain and suffering.
One of the landmark cases that involve euthanasia is that of Karen Ann Quinlan. Quinlan, a twenty-one year old New Jersey resident, overdosed on pills and alcohol in 1975. She was rushed to the hospital where her physical condition gradually deteriorated to a vegetative state. The doctors determined she had no chance of recovery. Karen’s parents requested she be removed from the respirator. The hospital denied their request. The Quinlans then directed their request to the court. The superior court denied their request. They took their request to the new Jersey Supreme court where the decision was reversed. Karen was removed from the respirator. To everyone’s surprise, Karen began breathing on her own and was transferred to a nursing home, where she remained in a coma, fed through tubes, until she died in July 1985, ten years later (Humphry and Wickett, 108).
The Quinlan case brought to the forefront patients’ desire to die a proud, quiet death and the complications caused by the advancement of medical technology to prolong life. Individuals should have the right to die with dignity in the event of a terminal illness if he or she wants to. Those who oppose legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide say that this could lead to voluntary killing of the aged and infirm. I agree that there may be danger of abuse of euthanasia; therefore, I support passing legislation that monitors and regulates physician assisted suicide. In order to clarify my position, I will first distinguish between passive and active euthanasia and their implications. In addition, I will examine the legal issues behind the Quinlan case and other similar cases. Finally, I will propose the argument that with proper legislation, physician assisted suicide is often a more favorable alternative to allowing patients to suffer needlessly.
O. Ruth Russell defines active or positive euthanasia as a positive merciful act taken deliberately to end futile suffering or a meaningless existence…where death is induced either by direct action to terminate life or by indirect action such as in giving drugs in amounts that will clearly hasten death (19). Active euthanasia is illegal in most states. Passive or negative euthanasia means discontinuing or desisting from the use of extraordinary life-sustaining measures or heroic efforts to prolong life in hopeless cases when such prolongation seems an unwarranted extension of either suffering or unconsciousness (Russell, 20).
There are several different views associated with active and passive euthanasia. While some doctors and patients may accept passive euthanasia, many reject active euthanasia. Robert G. Twycross strongly disagrees with the practice of euthanasia, especially active euthanasia in Where There Is Hope, There Is Life: A View From the Hospice. Twycross uses cancer patients as an example and asserts that often patients opt for euthanasia because initially they do not feel the relieves of medication being and their pain is used as a channel of mental anguish (162). Therefore, unable to stand the intolerable pain, patients feel that euthanasia is the best way out. However, Twycross argues that compared with patients and physically fit people, doctors have been noted to express a greater fear of death, more rejection of personnel death and significantly more negative death imagery (159). Twycross’ argument adds a whole new dimension to the euthanasia argument. If in fact doctors are reluctant to accept euthanasia in their practice, they may discourage their patients from opting for it. Several complications arise at this point. Even if euthanasia is legalized, will doctors accept the new treatment and will patients be able to go to any doctor before worrying about whether or not the doctor will accept euthanasia when the time comes?
The doctor-patient relationship and the ethical connotations of euthanasia are really important to my argument too. Dr. Malcolm C. Todd, president-elect of the American Medical Association, told the press that mercy killings have their place in certain uncorrectable fatal illnesses, but that decisions in such cases should not be left to the attending physician alone, (Russell, 46).