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James Rachels' Death and Dying


      James Rachels is one of the most controversial philosophers talked about

in today's society.  One of his most talked about topics is whether a person has

a right to die or not.  Not much is known about Rachels expect for the many

articles and books he has written.  In the controversy of letting a person die

or killing him, he does not try to explain which method is good and which method

is bad.  He however tries to explain why they  both are bad to a certain degree.

Rachels does not take one side, but tries to convince why one is better than the

other.  In his opinion, letting a person starve to death or just putting him out

of his misery by killing him is an ongoing struggle.  If you let a person starve

to death, it might be putting that person through a lot of pain but he'll still

be alive (who knows, maybe a miracle cure will be found.)  If you killed him on

the spot with a lethal injection, it would be a more peaceful death but you

would be shortening that person's life.  Putting a person to death in a peaceful

manner is called euthanasia.  Euthanasia is an ancient word that means "easy

death."  There is also the issue of morality.  Would killing someone by their

own will or suicide be a moral act?  What about a patient that is suffering from

cancer?  Is it moral to let that person suffer?  These are some of the many

questions people have been trying to answer for year without success.


      Euthanasia is a very uncomfortable subject to talk about for most people

because who wants to think about having to kill oneself or a person that is dear

to his or her life.  Even though nobody wants to go through the hardship of

deciding whether a person should live or die, it happens everyday.  There are

two forms of euthanasia.  There is an active euthanasia and a passive euthanasia

(Jussim 7-13).  This so-called distinction between active and passive was

challenged by Rachels in a paper first published in 1975 in the New England

Journal of Medicine.  In that paper, Rachels challenges both the use and moral

significance of that distinction.  He argues that active euthanasia is in many

cases is more humane than passive euthanasia.  Rachels urges doctors to

reconsider their views on active euthanasia.  He writes: "To begin with a

familiar type of situation, a patient who is dying of incurable cancer of the

throat is in terrible pain, which can no longer be satisfactorily alleviated.

He is certain to die within a few days even if present treatment is continued,

but he does not want to go on living for those days since the pain is unbearable.

 So he asks the doctor for an end to it, and his family joins in this request

(Rachels 106-108)." "Suppose the doctor agrees to withhold treatment.  The

justification for his doing so is that the patient is in terrible agony, and

since he is going to die anyway, it would be wrong to prolong his suffering

needlessly, but now notice this if one simply withholds treatment, it may take

the patient longer to die, and so he may suffer more than he would if more

direct action were taken and a lethal injection given.  This fact provides

strong reason for thinking that, once the initial decision not to prolong his

agony has been made, active euthanasia is actually preferable to passive

euthanasia, rather than the reverse (Rachels 106-108)."  Let's take for example

one of my favorites, Baby Jane Doe.  She is a baby that was heavily deformed

mentally and physically.  The doctors said that she doesn't have a chance to

live if she doesn't go into surgery.  However, Baby Jane Doe has a slight chance

of living if the surgery is done, but she would most likely live to be 18 years

old or less.  She would still be mentally retarded and would need constant

attention from her parents.  So if Baby Jane goes into surgery, it would be the

same as passive euthanasia.  The parents of Baby Jane decided that it would be

better for them and her if she died peacefully rather than suffering through

what was sure to be her death in later years.  However, the government decided

that it was wrong for Baby Jane to die so they were forced to have the surgery

done to their child (Rachels 60-62).  So is killing someone worse than letting

them die passively?  Rachels asks us to consider two cases.  Let's take for

example a guy named Mike will gain a large inheritance if anything should happen

to his young cousin.  One evening while the youngster is taking a bath, Mike

sneaks into the bathroom and drowns the child, and then arranges things so it

will look like an accident.  In the second case, a guy named John will gain a

large inheritance and plans to drown his cousin, but as he enters the bathroom

John sees the child slip and hit his head and fall face down in the water.  John

watches and does nothing.  Now, Mike killed the child while John let the child

die.  Now did either man behave better, from a moral point of view?  "If the

difference between killing and letting die were in itself a morally important

matter, one should say that John's behavior was less reprehensible than Mike's.

But does one really want to say that (Rachels 131)?"  So in the case of Baby

Jane Doe, no one is to say who's right.  In this circumstances, the government

was right because Baby Jane Doe is doing a whole lot better than many doctors

speculated. Even though the government might have been right about Baby Jane

Doe's diagnosis, there are many times when their decisions are completely wrong.

I believe that there are some circumstances when euthanasia is the morally

correct action.  I also understand that there are real concerns about legalizing

euthanasia because of fear of misuse or overuse, and the fear of the loss of

respect for the value of life.  We need to proceed with caution in my opinion.

We need full and open discussion, improvements in research, and above all we

need to think about the topic together.  Our best approach at this time may be

to modify homicide laws to include motivational factors as a legitimate defense.

Just as homicide is acceptable in cases of self-defense, it could be considered

acceptable if the motive is mercy.  Obviously, strict parameters would have to

be established that would include patients' request and approval, or in the case

of incompetent patients such as a person in a vegetable state, advance

directives in the form of a living will or family and court approval.  Now there

lies the question about the law and how euthanasia can be a legal process.


      Wouldn't it be wonderful if the government would make as much sense as

'men' do?  All we need is beer, sleep, nachos, and sex.  Then we would have no

complications whatsoever.  However, the law doesn't work that way.  Our

governing law works much like a 'women' does.  It's so controlling even though

it says we have freedom, it spends our hard earned money like crazy, and it's

always changing the rules to its liking.  For those who believe that euthanasia

is immoral may nevertheless hold that it should not be illegal (Rachels 168).

They may reason that if a person wants to die, it is strictly up to them no

matter how foolish or immoral their desire may be.  However, the American law

makes no distinction between euthanasia and murder (Rachels 182).   As everybody

knows, there are many loop holes in the government, and if you look hard enough

you'll be able to find them.  One of the ways that you can get away with

euthanasia is by starving yourself to death.  Some people might feel that

starving themselves to death is an alternative and an ideal euthanasia.  Many

old people have died this way (Humphry 63).  However this is not as easy as it

seems because there are many factors you have to consider.  In some cases of

self-starvation, the dehydration process can be painful and could take up to 40

days.  They may also slip in and out of coma.  Because of this, the process of

self-starvation euthanasia could take a considerable amount of time and should

be carefully considered before preceding (Humphry 63-65).  A person  may ask why

this form of euthanasia is legal.  It is because there is always a loop hole

somewhere in the government's law system.  The law doesn't permit force feeding

so you can't force someone to eat.  Also the law doesn't permit any medical

treatment without the patient's consent even if their condition threatens their

life (Humphry 65).


      Death is one of the wonders of Life.  I'm sure that everyone sometime or

another has thought about what it was like to be in the state of complete

unconsciousness or be dead to put it in simpler terms.  In an ironic sense, many

people may wonder what it would 'feel' like to be dead.  Many doctors and

scientists that have spent many years researching this topic and have come to

the conclusion that death occurs when a person's heart stops beating,

respiration ceases, and brain activity comes to a halt (Kung and Jens 8-9).  It

took a genius to figure that one out.  Euthanasia can not be completely argued

on until someone knows exactly what happens when someone passes on to the other

side.  David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher of the 18th century, remarked

that the aim of philosophy should be to replace superstition and false religion

with reason and understanding (Rachels 1).  So it is safe to say that euthanasia

is neither right or wrong.


Works Cited


Humphry, Derek.  Final Exit:  The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and

Assisted Suicide for the Dying.  Oregon:  The Hemlock Society, 1991.


Jussim, Daniel.  Euthanasia:  The "Right to Die" Issue.  New Jersey:  Enslow

Publishers Inc., 1993.


Kung, Hans, and Walter Jens.  Dying with Dignity:  A Plea for Personal

Responsibility. New York:  Continuum, 1995.


Landau, Elaine.  The Right to Die.  New York:  Franklin Watts, 1993.


Rachels, James.  The End of Life:  Euthanasia and Morality.  New York:  Oxford

University Press, 1986.

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