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The purpose of this essay is to inform readers clearly and coherently enoughof the terms and issues in the euthanasia debate that they can make sense of the euthanasia question. Descriptions are in relatively simple, non-technical language to facilitate learning.
The definition of euthanasia is simple: "Easy, painless death." But the concept of euthanasia proposed by adherents of the euthanasia movement is complex and has profound consequences for all. Because the subject involves the discipline of medicine (diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, medical ethics and so on) as well as the discipline of law, the general public will have difficulty understanding it without some knowledge of these matters.
We begin with the definition of terms:
* Euthanasia: traditionally, an easy, painless death. Now used to mean "mercy killing," "assisted suicide," or "involuntary euthanasia."
* Voluntary euthanasia: death administered to one who asks for it. In practice, truly voluntary euthanasia requests may be very rare, since the patient rarely gives informed consent because the alleged consent is influenced by depression, improperly treated pain or other factors that are not controlled but could be controlled.
* Involuntary euthanasia: death administered without the recipient's consent, commonly known as "mercy killing," as in the case of children or incompetent adults.
* Active, direct or positive euthanasia: direct killing of the patient by administering lethal drugs or other direct means of ending life, or by withholding or withdrawing ordinary means of sustaining life such as food and water, protection from exposure and so on.
* Passive, indirect or negative euthanasia: ambiguous. Can be the decision by patient, parent or guardian and physician to withhold or withdraw extraordinary means of sustaining or prolonging life, such as deciding against high-risk surgery for a patient dying of cancer or kidney failure. When the intent is not to cause death but rather to reject extraordinary treatment, this results in the acceptance of death or continued life, whichever occurs, but it is not true euthanasia. The terms "passive," "indirect" or "negative euthanasia" should not be used since they play into the hands of euthanasia advocates by confusing legitimate actions with euthanasia, thereby desensitizing people to the fact that euthanasia is killing. More importantly, passive euthanasia is sometimes defined by others as the withholding of lifesaving treatment with the intention and result of causing the patient's death. This is the equivalent to active, direct euthanasia.
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* Ordinary means: food, drink, rest, medicines, treatments and operations which offer a reasonable hope of benefit for the patient and which can be obtained and used without excessive expense, pain or other inconvenience.
Extraordinary means: those treatments, medicines and operations which are gravely burdensome to the patient, and which cannot be obtained or used without excessive expense, pain or other inconvenience or which, if used, would not offer a reasonable hope of benefit to the patient. A court recently has defined extraordinary means to include food and has ordered the removing of food from a patient for the purpose of killing the patient.
The Position of Medicine, Theology and Law on Euthanasia:
Active, direct or positive euthanasia is forbidden by law, and by most doctors and theologians. Under the common law it is murder or manslaughter in English-speaking countries, regardless of compassionate motives or consent of the victim. To withhold or withdraw ordinary means of sustaining life is equivalent to direct or active euthanasia. Thus this is direct killing and consequently should be forbidden by medicine, theology and law. Killing patients by withdrawing food and fluids has been advocated by some theologians, physicians and courts. To withhold or withdraw extraordinary means of sustaining life is not forbidden as such by medicine, theology or law.
When it is necessary for the comfort of the dying patient to give drugs to alleviate pain even though they may indirectly shorten his life or deprive him of the use of reason, it is neither active euthanasia nor is it forbidden by medicine, theology or law. Proper use of painkillers can relieve pain without destroying reasoning power.
Suicide is the act and intent of a person to cause death to himself by direct killing (such as by lethal drug) or by withholding or withdrawing ordinary means (self-starvation). The following is based on a legal analysis of suicide by Robert M. Byrn, professor of law at Fordham University School of Law. (Compulsory)
Suicide had at one time been a crime with a penalty of "ignominious burial" and forfeiture of property. In the U.S. this penalty was abolished so that suicide is no longer strictly speaking a crime. But that does not make it lawful "in the sense that a right has been conferred."
Professor Byrn cites a 16th-century judge's legal objections to suicide:
1. It is an unnatural violation of the rules of self-preservation, because a "right" to suicide is the "apparent contradiction in a claim of right to destroy the life from which all rights flow."
2. It is a breach of (God's) commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." In modern law, "the value of human life qua human" means that killing oneself shows disvalue for human life qua human. This constitutes aggression against life, and treats life as property rather than unalienable.
3. Suicide is "against the King," depriving him of a subject, "transformed in American law to an inherent function of government to protect human life and not allow its destruction by legally permitting self-destruction.
4. It is an "evil example" to the King's subjects. So modern government "retains the power to bar conduct which will encourage suicide as an 'evil example' to other susceptible members of society."
Attempted suicide - in some states a crime but not punished.
Aiding and abetting a suicide or a suicide attempt - in many states a crime.
Preventing another from committing suicide (or from inflicting serious harm to himself) by the use of reasonable force - legal in many states.
Byrn, Robert M. "Compulsory Lifesaving Treatment for the Competent Adult," Fordham Law Review, Volume 44, October 1, 1975.