Ethical issues raised by euthanasia

2014-07-30 00:00

FAY, a long-term hospital patient, was dying of cancer that had metastasised to most organs, so that the intense pain was only controllable with larger and more frequent doses of morphine, which was affecting her mental alertness.

She knew she was dying, as the doctor had explained there was no hope of halting the disease. Unable to bear further suffering, and with no possible improvement, she asked the doctor to help her end her life, and allow her to die with some dignity. Her family supported her request.

This is what is commonly known as euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.

It involves several features:

• the patient is deliberately killed;

• the prognosis is that no improvement is possible, so the patient is dying;

• the patient is suffering dreadful pain; and

• the patient requests to be killed.

The death would be an act of mercy, preventing further unnecessary suffering, and providing as good a death as possible under the circumstances.

Most people would not consider this to be murder; it is best described as assisted suicide. Western societies, generally, have progressed beyond the attitudes of the past where suicide was considered a crime, where a failed suicide was treated as murder, and the body of a suicide was denied a religious burial in “hallowed ground”. Those who attempt suicide today are generally treated with sympathy, and given whatever help possible to deal with the desperate circumstances which drove them to choose death rather than life.

The term euthanasia is derived from two Greek words eu-thanatos, literally “good/gentle death”, also referred to as “mercy killing”, “death with dignity”, or “self-deliverance”. The motive is to relieve intolerable suffering when all other alternatives have been considered or explored.

Other examples of euthanasia would be a patient who is almost totally paralysed and periodically requiring artificial support such as a respirator or some other “heroic” means to support life, asking that this support be withheld, allowing him or her to die.

Or the situation where severe brain damage renders a patient permanently comatose, being kept alive indefinitely by artificial life-support machines, and the family requests that the machines be switched off to allow the person to die naturally.

Whereas the introductory instance is referred to as “active” assisted suicide, these latter two would be called “passive” assisted suicide.

One thinks here of the situation of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who finally died in January 2014, having been kept alive on life-support machines for eight years, after a massive stroke left him comatose.

For those who desire to make provision to ensure that they are not unnecessarily kept alive, there are the options of a living will or an advanced directive, which make provision for a healthy, mentally competent adult to sign a document stating his or her wish to die when the prognosis is hopeless.

Obviously, many doctors would prefer the terminal patient to be offered palliative care before considering physician-assisted death, and their conscience and ethical stance must allow physicians to decide whether or not they are able to comply with the patient’s wishes.

Whereas, historically, most religious traditions have been against all killing of humans in peace time, the history of mercy killing is long, and in ancient Greece, deformed or seriously ill infants were killed.

Western society continued to condemn euthanasia until Thomas More in 1516 advocated it for the terminally ill in his ideal society, Utopia.

Almost a century later, Francis Bacon believed the duty of a physician was not only to restore health, but to help people to die when there was no hope of recovery.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the father of Utilitarianism, taught that the purpose of morality was to promote the greatest happiness for all creatures, advocating that it was a purely personal affair if one wished a quick, painless death.

The modern euthanasia movement began in Britain in 1936 with the attempt, unsuccessfully, to pass a bill in Parliament, supported by people such as G.B. Shaw, H.G. Wells and Julian Huxley.

Countries in which euthanasia is currently legal are Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the U.S. states of Oregon, Washington and Vermont. The UK Parliament is currently debating the Assisted Dying Bill.

This complex ethical issue leaves each individual with a variety of questions to consider:

Most of us wish to be able to die well, quickly, with as little pain as possible.

Just as abortion raises questions about human responsibility at the beginning of life, so euthanasia raises similar ethical questions about its end.

Why are so many people more appalled by an unnatural form of dying than by an unnatural form of living?

Is it morally permissible to kill, or to allow to die, someone who is going to die soon anyway, at that person’s request, as an act of compassion?

Is life always the highest good?

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.