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Euthanasia and Senicide

The Modern Argument

Compassion. Contemporary advocacy for euthanasia centers on compassion for patients whose suffering is considered to be incapable of relief in any other way or who wish to be protected from what they fear will be an undignified death. In the Netherlands, the only country where assisted suicide and euthanasia have long been legally sanctioned, guidelines require that the patient must be experiencing unbearable and unrelievable suffering before the physician can assist in a suicide.

Opponents of legalization point out that the overwhelming majority of patients requesting euthanasia change their mind when their suffering is addressed by a knowledgeable and caring physician. In the exceptional case, sedation may be necessary to relieve suffering. They see death as becoming undignified when patients are not valued or treated with respect.

Proponents counter that even if it is theoretically possible to provide a painless or dignified death to most or all suffering patients, the trained personnel or the social and medical systems that would permit it are not in place. In the meantime, they claim physician-assisted suicide is needed to end patient suffering.

Compassion can be misdirected, however, and is no guarantee against doing harm. Lewis Thomas, one of the deans of American medicine, wrote insightfully about the sense of failure and helplessness that physicians may experience in the face of death; such feelings may explain why they have such difficulty discussing terminal illness with patients. These feelings may also explain both doctors' tendency to use excessive measures to maintain life and their need to make death a medical decision. By deciding when patients die, and by making death a medical decision, the physician preserves the illusion of mastery over the disease and the accompanying feelings of helplessness. Compassion for the patient can become a rationalization for the physician's own emotional discomfort.

In overburdened families, compassion that requires the death of the patient can also be self-serving. An overburdened spouse justifies ending the life of an infirm husband or wife on the grounds of compassion. A Swedish study (Wasserman) examined the response of relatives to the suicide attempts of elderly patients with somatic illnesses. Family members, overwhelmed by what they felt were the relentless needs of the patient, were likely to delay calling the doctor, to urge nonresuscitation of the patient, and to have expressed wishes that the patient would die. Once help from social and welfare agencies was arranged, families were able to be genuinely compassionate and the patients wanted to live.

Justifying euthanasia by compassion also opens the door to ending the lives of people who appear to be suffering but are not able to make their wishes known, and of those who are capable of consent but do not wish to do so or are simply not consulted. Abuses in all of these categories in the Netherlands have been a cause of concern (Hendin et al., 1997) but are rarely punished. Since there is no objective way of determining what is unbearable pain and suffering, when pain and suffering become all-important as criteria, the decision depends on the doctor's subjective assessment.

Choice. Partly for these reasons, advocates of legalization are increasingly not basing their argument on compassion for those who are suffering, but on the patient's right to choose. Oregon, the only state to legalize assisted suicide, while copying Dutch guidelines in many respects, did not make suffering a criterion for assisted suicide. Simply having a terminal illness, a prognosis of less than six months to live, and a wish to die are enough. How helpful are these criteria and what choice do Oregon patients really have?

When choice is the major determinant, physicians are not encouraged to inquire into the source of the desperation that usually underlies most requests for assisted suicide and euthanasia, an inquiry that leads patients and physicians to have the kind of discussion that often brings relief for patients and makes assisted suicide seem unnecessary. Nor are physicians asked or required by the Oregon law to make such an inquiry (Hendin et al. 1998).

When their suffering is addressed by a knowledgeable and caring physician, the over-whelming number of patients requesting euthanasia change their mind. For the exceptional case sedation may be necessary to provide relief. If confronted with a physician who does not know how to relieve their distress, and the choice is between continuing to suffer and an expedited death, the patient really has little choice. The debate over euthanasia is in part a debate over whether the need to reduce suffering in those who are terminally ill requires the legalization of euthanasia.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2Euthanasia and Senicide - Historical Background, The Modern Argument, The Ethical Rationale Of Peter Singer, Conclusion