Quality of life is not often guaranteed when one is suffering from a terminal illness. In fact quality of life and terminal illnesses hardly seem to be complementary. For years debate has been ongoing on the morality and legality of physician administered active voluntary euthanasia also known as physician assisted suicide or PAS for short. Physician assisted suicide involves a physician, at the request of the patient, either withholding or administering some form of procedure that would immediately or eventually lead to ending the patient’s life. Such an act becomes necessary when the quality of life for the patient is laced with pain and suffering, when alternatives do not seem to work and therefore the patient opts for death rather than a life in their current condition.
The most furtive debate is often not whether physician assisted euthanasia is ethical in all cases but whether or not the state should legalize this practice (Kamisar 1123; Kaveny 125). Numerous arguments have been put forward on the two sides of the argument and both seem feasible. However, whatever the opposing positions, the arguments for the legalization of physician assisted euthanasia are quite valid. Euthanasia should be legalized throughout the states of the U.S.A. as an option for patients, in consultation with their families and physicians.
Reporting on data from a questionnaire among physicians Gupta, Bhatnagar and Mishra highlighted that 60% supported the legalization of physician assisted euthanasia at least in some cases. One argument for its legalization relates to an individual’s right to choose what is in his best interest. One of the fundamental principles that prevails in the U. S. is the right of the individual to determine and charter his own life path (Gittelman 372). The government aims to be as unobtrusive as possible when it comes to involvement in the affairs of the individual. Therefore the government should not restrict an individual’s choice of death over life in situations where the former seems to be the better alternative. The patient, therefore, as ultimate decision maker should be empowered to make such a decision independently.
Opponents of legalization would want to suggest here that if the individual is given such all-encompassing power then this will suggest further societal implications. As in the case with abortion, the line between acts that affect just the individual and those that impact wider society will become distorted. On the other hand it is the duty of the government to draft correct procedures that would properly guide the practice of euthanasia. It will not be left up to the individual at all times to arbitrary decide when to die by accessing euthanasia but detailed and specific guidelines must be laid down in conjunction with the legislative instrument. As Gittelman argues, government must aim to control the actions of individuals in so far as they are overall harmful to self and other members in the society (372).
Related to this argument is a further benefit of physician assisted euthanasia. Currently physicians are conducting euthanasia even though it is illegal in most states across the U.S. (Gupta, Bhatnagar and Mishra). Physicians who comply with the requests of patients are taking a legal risk. There is the implication that this practice is not uniformed as there are no standards by which euthanasia is being conducted on this non-legal basis. Furthermore very little is known of the extent to which euthanasia is practiced throughout the United States (Kamisar 1124). The benefit that legalization would bring is to make the procedures more standardized and administrators would have significantly more control over its processes.
Opponents have been pointing to the case of Judith Curren as grounds on which legalization should not be explored. Curren was an obese woman of 42 suffering from chronic-fatigue syndrome who was assisted to death by Dr. Kevorkian. Obviously her situation was not chronic enough to merit euthanasia (Kaveny 125) and other options could have been explored. It is, however, precisely because of these cases why physician assisted euthanasia should be legalized. Incompetence would be avoided and dealt with appropriately if necessary.
A further argument for the legalization of euthanasia is the financial strain it would remove from families who have to maintain care of terminally ill relatives. The medical costs incurred by individual families and the government when such hospitalization is covered through it social services, are tremendous. Medical costs for terminally ill patients would therefore be significantly less because some would have the option of terminating life early rather than depend on a life support system that is not curative. Moreover more doctors would, as suggested by Gittelman, be willing to explore the possibility of euthanasia with patients (372).
Another reason for legalization is to protect doctors from unnecessary lawsuits and criminal penalties for acts done at the request of the patient. Doctors are now putting themselves at serious risks by carrying out euthanasia on their patients. Without the legislative backing physicians who persist with euthanasia go against the dictates of the law. Legalization, detailing the specific conditions and circumstances under which euthanasia could be performed, would avoid abuse by physicians ensuring that the proper procedures are followed. Therefore terminally ill patients would be protected in two main regards, they will be protected from the wrongful judgment of physicians to make poor decisions on their behalf and on the other hand patients would be protected from ceaseless pain and suffering.
Many more arguments could be leveled in favor of the legalization of physician assisted euthanasia. What is evident is that the arguments that have been used to counter legalization are not quite sound. The rare case where this practice was misused by unprofessional personnel is not a true reflection of its true potential. Furthermore lack of proper governmental regulation is what is contributing to these problems. Legalization would therefore dispel these problems.
Gittelman, David. “Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide.” Southern Medical Journal 92.4 (April 1999): 369-374.
Gupta, Deepak, Sushma Bhatnagar and Seema Mishra. “Euthanasia: Issues Implied Within.” Internet Journal of Pain, Symptom Control & Palliative Care 4.1(2006):1.
Kamisar, Yale. “Physician-Assisted Suicide: The Problems Presented by the Compelling Heartwrenching case.” The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 88.3 (1998): 1121-1146.
Kaveny, M. Cathleen. “Assisted Suicide, Euthanasia, and the Law.” Theological studies. 58 (1997): 124-148.