Write an essay on the moral defensibility of voluntary euthanasia for an autonomous adult. It goes without saying that, when the time comes, most people would hope for a peaceful death. A death free from suffering and pain, and a death that allows the individual to retain some measure of dignity. It is not unreasonable then for autonomous adults to want to exercise the same control over the circumstances of their death, as much as possible, as they do their life. After all, dying is the natural and unavoidable conclusion to life.
Their hope for a peaceful and dignified death is the motivation behind those who seek out euthanasia. The word euthanasia derives from the Greek “eu-thanatos” meaning “good death” and originally referred to intentional mercy killing (Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Victoria, 1998:6). These days, euthanasia can be defined as the inducement of a gentle, distress-free death at the request of a patient, especially in the cases where the individual in question suffers from an incurable and painful illness or disability.
Voluntary Euthanasia is the administering of euthanasia to a clearly competent individual who makes an enduring request to die. Euthanasia is different from assisted suicide, where a patient voluntarily brings about his or her own death with the assistance of another person, usually a physician. In cases like this, the act is considered suicide because the patient actually causes his or her own death (Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New South Wales, 1993:4). In cases where assisted suicide is possible, it should be attempted before voluntary euthanasia.
The wishes of the patient should be more obvious in these cases, and there can be little or no confusion over the fact that the patient did want to die (Glover, 1977:184). Debate over the morality and legality of voluntary euthanasia has raged mostly in recent times, however, this essay will only be concerned with the moral defensibility of voluntary euthanasia. There are several conditions or criteria which supporters of voluntary euthanasia believe should be satisfied by any person who wishes their life to end in this manner.
The person must be suffering from a terminal illness; be unlikely to benefit from a cure for their illness in the time they have left; be suffering intolerable pain or their life be unacceptably burdensome; must have a competent and enduring wish to die; and they must be unable to commit suicide without the help of another. These conditions are somewhat narrow, as they do not account for illnesses such as Alzheimer’s Disease, or motor neurone diseases. But a broader criteria would only confuse the issue and make it more difficult to gain society’s acceptance and moral support (Molloy, 1993:189).
There are many commonly heard arguments for euthanasia, of which only a few will be examined here. The most popular argument for voluntary euthanasia is choice. People like to exercise autonomy over the circumstances of their life, which includes their death. This may well involve making choices about the way in which they die, and the timing of their death (Molloy, 1993:172). Understandably, people are also concerned with what the last stages of their life will be like.
Many fear a long and drawn out period of pain and suffering before death, which is something that nobody should have to endure. There are others who worry about retaining their dignity in the last stages of life. There have been a great number of advances in medical technology in the last century, most of which are aimed at extending life. But extending life does not mean extending quality of life. Many believe that modern medicine is more concerned with keeping an individual’s biological functions operating, instead of treating patients as people (Smith, 1997:214).
And many people worry about becoming a burden on family, such that their lives become no longer worth living. This is another reason why competent individuals should have the right to choose voluntary euthanasia, if they genuinely feel that their life is no longer worth living. There are many opponents to voluntary euthanasia who believe the practice is never necessary, due to the high standards of palliative care available to those who are afflicted by a terminal disease (Molloy, 1993:189). There are several problems with this argument.
The first is that palliative care is not available to everyone with a terminal illness. In fact, only a small percentage of those with a terminal illness receive palliative care (Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New South Wales:14) and even then, it is only in the last few weeks before death. Just because palliative care is available, does not mean it is effective in every case. Pain medication administered to patients can have an array of side effects such as nausea and incontinence, and for some individuals, the pain they suffer from cannot be relieved at all.
The only choice for such patients, if voluntary euthanasia is to be denied, is sedation. A comatose state can be induced, so as to prevent the individual from experiencing any pain. It goes without saying that this existence is hardly dignified. And to maintain such a state until the patient dies of natural causes, perhaps weeks or even months away, would no doubt be quite costly. It is argued by some that if society allows voluntary euthanasia to be legally permitted, it would result in a decline in the respect we have for human life (Rachels, 1986:170).
And because of this we will have set foot on a slippery slope which, eventually, will lead society to support other forms of euthanasia, such as killing those who cannot, or will not, give consent, also known as non-voluntary euthanasia (Royal Australasian College of Physicians, 1993: 26). There are several forms of slippery slope argument, but I will limit this argument to only two. The first is the logical version. It argues that once a practice like voluntary euthanasia is accepted, logically we will have no choice but to accept other practices such as non-voluntary euthanasia.