Kathleen M. Foley, author of Competent Care for the Dying Instead of Physician-Assisted Suicide, believes doctors should develop treatments for the physical and psychological problems of dying patients rather than helping them commit suicide. Available data suggests most physicians do not receive training in the care of dying patients. Dying patients experience physical symptoms such as pain, psychological problems such as anxiety and depression and existential distress (described as the experience of life without meaning.)(1) many of the physical and psychological problems can be treated. Furthermore, legalization of physician-assisted suicide may deter physicians from developing treatments that could enhance the dying patient’s quality of life.
Euthanasia by definition means “a gentle and easy death”, “the good death of another” or “mercy killing.”(2) There are two types of euthanasia currently recognized, active and passive euthanasia. Active euthanasia is the taking of one’s own life, or being killed, for example, by lethal injection. Passive euthanasia is taking one’s life with the assistance of another or just being allowed to die. In passive euthanasia we simply refrain from doing anything to keep the patient alive, for example, refusing to perform surgery, administer medication, give heart massage or use a respirator and let the patient die from whatever illness is already present. It is important to understand the difference, because many people believe that active euthanasia is immoral and passive euthanasia is morally all right. They believe that we should actually never kill patients, but sometimes it is all right to let them die.
The main issue then is it morally permissible to kill or let someone die who is going to die soon anyway, at the person’s own request, as an act of kindness?
Throughout history, many people have thought that the distinction between active and passive euthanasia is morally important: and many of those who condemned active euthanasia raised no objection against passive euthanasia. Even by people who believed killing to be wrong, allowing people to die by not treating them was thought in some circumstances to be all right. Even before Christ, Socrates was quoted as saying, ” …bodies which disease had penetrated through and through he would not have attempted to cure…he did not want to lengthen out good-for-nothing lives.”(3) In the centuries that followed, both the Christians and the Jews viewed allowing to die in circumstances of hopeless suffering, morally permissible. It was killing that they adamantly opposed.
The Pope, stating the position of the Catholic Church, said “it is acceptable to allow the patient who is virtually already dead to pass away in peace.”(4) In a statement published in 1982, the American Medical Association echoes the feeling of the Catholic Church saying, ” we remain firm on our stand against mercy killing, but allowing patients to die (in some circumstances) is all right.”(5) So it seems, there is widespread agreement that passive euthanasia is morally all right (in at least some cases), but active
euthanasia is much more controversial.
In essence what we seek is whether euthanasia active or passive is moral, or whether it is immoral. To discover the truth we must examine the arguments or reasons that are given for or against it. If the arguments in favor of euthanasia are persuasive and the arguments against it can be rejected, then it is morally acceptable. And likewise, if after careful analysis we find a strong case against euthanasia, we would have to conclude it to be immoral. I think this is true not only of euthanasia, but of any moral issue.
The single most powerful argument in support of euthanasia is the argument of mercy. The main idea of this argument is simple. Terminal patients sometimes suffer pain far beyond our comprehension. This suffering can be so terrible that we cringe at the descriptions of such agony. The argument for mercy says: Euthanasia is justified because it puts an end to that. It is not important to give gory details of the suffering of the terminally ill, but it is important to keep these visions vividly imprinted in our minds so we can appreciate the full force of the argument for mercy. If a person prefers and even begs for death as the only alternative to lingering on in this kind