What are the main issues in the debate about euthanasia.

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Alice Clark

An analysis of the moral and religious issues raised by euthanasia

 Euthanasia means ‘good death.’ It is used in situations where death is deliberately chosen, and not when someone is killed by accident (for example, in a car accident or failed medical treatment). Someone will choose to kill themselves or someone close to them because they feel that death is the best option in the situation. This usually happens when someone is suffering from a terminal illness and wishes to die in less pain, and so therefore, wishes to die sooner. There are different types of circumstances when it comes to euthanasia, and there are two different ways of administering it; ‘actively’ (deliberately enforcing death, for example, by a lethal injection) and ‘passively’ (simply ‘letting die,’ for example, by withholding life-prolonging treatment).

 Although there are moral issues with particular circumstances in which euthanasia is administered, (for example, suicide) the main form of euthanasia that I shall be commenting on is active euthanasia, voluntary and non-voluntary, because I believe it is a factor with more ethical consideration and I personally have strong views on the matter.

 The simple justifications of euthanasia are as follows; it humanely ends a patient’s suffering, it shortens the grief of loved ones, and many people argue that one should have a right to decide when they die. If the law were changed, doctors could carry out euthanasia legally. If one could die with dignity, then it could possibly help others face death. It would also help doctors if they knew of their patient’s intentions. The simple criticisms of euthanasia are as follows; some may argue that patients are incapable of making a rational decision, and may change their mind, but would be unable to tell the doctors this. People have also been known to recover after doctors have diagnosed them of having a terminal illness, and so euthanasia would be wasteful in this case. Some may believe that euthanasia devalues life, as it becomes ‘disposable.’ It is argued that people would take life too lightly if euthanasia were legalised.

 A lot of voluntary euthanasia cases tend to involve an elderly patient. There are complications in this situation, as old people may feel they are a nuisance to others, and may opt for euthanasia although their heart wants to continue living. This is a huge moral dilemma for friends and relatives, as they have to choose between their loved one suffering or being deprived of him or her. On the other end of the scale, elderly people who live on their own without any living friends or relatives may request to die through sheer loneliness. There could also be a lot of confusion from the patient involved. With the fast progress in medicine over the past century, there are now a lot more older people than there are younger ones. The elderly may, therefore, become confused and request euthanasia motivated from the fact that they miss their youth. A common question also raised in these cases, ‘What is there to look forward to?’

 The justification of the individual intending their own death is made on the grounds that life brings them no pleasure and death is preferable to the intolerable life that they would continue to live. Therefore, it is based on the expected results of the action. A lot of people would argue that choosing death is avoiding the natural course of one’s life, however, this mainly applies to religious views and the idea that it ‘goes against the will of God.’ Some people may say that the only circumstance where choosing death is in the least bit acceptable is when one chooses to keep his or her dignity, and is put to death because of that. It is the secondary result, but not the intended act of the individual.

 Pro-euthanasia associations form an argument for euthanasia by writing strict circumstances by which euthanasia should be carried out. This being that at least two doctors should diagnose the patient as having an incurable and terminal illness, and that the individual must give a written request for euthanasia at least thirty days beforehand. The ‘Voluntary-euthanasia society’ (Exit) aims to bring about a change in law so that: ‘An adult person suffering from a severe illness, for which no relief is known, should be entitled by law to the mercy of the painless death, if and only if, that is their expressed wish.’ ‘Doctors should be allowed to help incurable patients to die peacefully at their own request. The patient must have signed, at least 30 days previously, a declaration making their request known.’

 The issue of euthanasia creates an ethical division between two different types of moral argument, the ‘natural law’ argument and the ‘situation ethics’ argument. The ‘Natural law’ argument against euthanasia is the idea that one is going against the natural cause of one’s life. However, it could also be argued that because we ‘naturally’ avoid death, do we ‘naturally’ avoid pain as well? This conflicts with the ‘situation ethics’ debate, which judges each situation on the unique circumstance. It argues the ‘greatest amount of love for the greatest amount of people.’ A situationist would therefore carry through whatever love required in the situation; which may involve euthanasia, both voluntary and non-voluntary. It could be that love does not permit pain and suffering, but also that it is not loving to kill a person that family and friends will miss dearly. Friends and relatives may be going through anguish as the patient is dying, and may feel better knowing they had a quick and painless death. If euthanasia is the patient’s request, it may also be considered to be the greatest love that one could give them. On the other hand, friends and relatives may want the patient to live for as long as possible. They may also consider death to be a morally wrong action under any circumstances. ‘Situation ethics’ therefore is well named, as the morally right action depends on the situation. The same applies to the principle of utilitarianism, of which situation ethics was adapted from. The principle of Utility states that the morally right action is the one that brings about ‘the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.’ In the case of euthanasia, the same debatable ways of seeing it as morally good or bad applies with utilitarianism as with situation ethics. However, utilitarianism is, in itself, divided between ‘act’ utilitarians and ‘rule’ utilitarians. ‘Act’ utilitarians apply utilitarianism to everything, and so in this case the euthanasia debate would agree with the principles of situation ethics. ‘Rule’ utilitarians tend to judge along the same lines as act utilitarians, but they believe that traditional moral rules should always take priority in a situation. They therefore would probably argue that euthanasia is wrong in all situations, as a traditional moral rule is not to take the life of another.

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 As for utilitarianism in general, calculating the pleasure and the pain of euthanasia can prove to be difficult. This is due to the fact that it is not death itself that matters to many people, just the pain along the way. This is the key motive used to request euthanasia. When using the ‘hedonic calculus,’ are we measuring the patient’s pain, or the friends and relatives’ pain? Which one outweighs the other? Can the two types of pain really be compared? Another complication is one of the general criticisms of utilitarianism, and that is that utilitarians have to have an ...

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