Legalizing Euthanasia Would Harm Patients Table of Contents

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Legalizing Euthanasia Would Harm Patients
Table of Contents: Further Readings

Some people face great pain and suffering at the end of their lives. In such highly emotional situations, euthanasia may seem like an ethical and humane option. But in discussing the legalization of euthanasia, the issue is not simply what seems best for some patients but what would be best for society as a whole. Ezekiel Emanuel, a professor at Harvard Medical School, explains this distinction: "The question confronting the United States is one of policy: Should we broadly legalize physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia? We must not be swayed by a few—or even a thousand—wrenching cases in which such intervention seems unequivocally right."1

Depression and Suicide

Contrary to popular belief, most patients who seek euthanasia are not motivated by physical pain. Instead, psychological factors—often depression—are the cause of their suicidal tendencies. In the Netherlands, where euthanasia is a widely accepted practice, studies by the Dutch government reveal that pain is a motivating factor in less than half of all euthanasia cases. American studies support these findings. According to Emanuel,

The current euthanasia debate has been carried on in almost total ignorance of the facts and data available. The chief justification for considering euthanasia is to provide relief for patients suffering excruciating pain. But these patients are not the ones who want euthanasia. Depression, hopelessness, anxiety and the like are why patients request aid in dying.2

Many suicide attempts are really a depressed person's cry for help. Suicidal individuals often do not sincerely wish to die, and with psychological assistance they can overcome their depression. As Herbert Hendin, executive director of the American Suicide Foundation, points out, "Three-fourths of all suicides communicate their intentions, often with the hope that something will be done to make their suicide unnecessary."3 However, if euthanasia is a legal right, doctors and family members will feel that they ought to quickly comply with a patient or loved one's request to die rather than thoroughly checking to see if the request is rational. Moreover, if assisted suicide becomes legal, depressed people will become even more likely to consider suicide as an option.

A Terrible Message

"An attempt at suicide," notes the National Right to Life Committee's department of biomedical ethics, "is often a challenge to see if anyone out there really cares."4 The legalization of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide would be a horrible answer to this challenge. It would send a devastating message not only to suicidal persons but also to anyone who has become weak or dependent on others because of illness or old age. As one author explains,

Instead of the message a humane society sends to its members—"Everybody has the right to be around, we want to keep you with us, every one of you"—the society that embraces euthanasia, even the "mildest" and most "voluntary" forms of it, tells people: "We wouldn't mind getting rid of you." This message reaches not only the elderly and the sick, but all the weak and dependent.5

Disadvantaged persons' fears that they are unwanted would be confirmed in the worst possible way. This is not a policy that America should take toward the elderly and the infirm.

A Duty to Die?

Because people often (mistakenly) associate what is legally permissible with what is morally correct, the legalization of euthanasia would profoundly change the way Americans think about death and dying. With the traditional taboo against killing gone, people would slowly come to accept euthanasia as normal. Doctors would become comfortable with assisted suicide as a routine treatment option. This normalization of assisted suicide would have a tragic impact on the way dying patients are treated.

Right-to-die activists say that euthanasia and assisted suicide would be completely voluntary, but there is no way to control the subtle coercions that can influence such decisions. Extremely ill patients, already worried that they are a burden to their families, would be pressured into choosing death. Herbert Hendin describes how this would occur: "A doctor who suggests euthanasia as an option to a patient ... or relatives who respond too readily to a patient's mention of euthanasia send a powerful message that they believe that the patient should not continue to live."6 The right to die would be perceived as a duty to die.

Pain Can Be Treated

Although most euthanasia requests are motivated by depression or other emotional problems, many individuals do suffer extreme physical pain at the end of life. Right-to-die activists would have such people believe that death is the only way to avoid such a painful existence. In painting such a grim picture, proponents of euthanasia ignore the hospice movement and the tremendous advances it has made in the treatment of pain.

Hospice care emerged in the 1970s when groups like the National Hospice Organization were formed "in response to the unmet needs of dying patients and their families for whom traditional medical care was no longer effective, appropriate, or desired."7 Hospice professionals do not focus on curing disease and neither hasten nor postpone death. Instead, nurses, physicians, social workers, and dietitians do everything possible to improve the dying patient's final days. Hospice physicians and nurses emphasize pain management and palliative, or comfort, care. Such care often takes place in the patient's home rather than in a hospital.

According to hospice physician Ira Byock, "The best hospice and palliative-care programs have demonstrated that pain and physical suffering can always be alleviated."8 Hospice caregivers commonly find that "once the pain and symptoms of an illness are under control, people rarely talk about taking their own lives."9 If patients had better access to hospice care, and if doctors were better trained in techniques of pain management, Americans would not be debating the legalization of physician-assisted suicide because they would not fear a painful, lonely death. "Instead of arguing whether assisted suicide should be legal or illegal," writes Byock, "let's do what is needed to make it irrelevant."10

Blaming the Sick for Their Suffering

Unfortunately, only 15 percent of Americans who died in 1996 were being treated with hospice care. Few Americans are even aware that this relatively new field of medicine exists. Too many dying patients are not offered the hospice option as it is, but according to Emanuel, if assisted suicide becomes legal, there will be far less incentive to comfort dying patients:

Rather than being seen primarily as the victims of pain and suffering caused by disease, patients would be seen as having the power to end their suffering by agreeing to an injection or taking some pills; refusing would mean that living through the pain was the patient's decision, the patient's responsibility. Placing the blame on the patient would reduce the motivation of caregivers to provide the extra care that might be required.11

These feelings would have a tragic impact on the way society regards the terminally ill.

This concern is compounded by the fact that it would be easier and cheaper for health care plans to provide assisted suicide than to provide around-the-clock comfort care for days or weeks. "Just imagine the money that can be saved," writes euthanasia opponent Wesley J. Smith, "by not treating AIDS patients, or cancer patients, or people with physical disabilities, because they have been chosen or coerced into choosing an early exit." 12 After taking these financial concerns into account, it becomes clear that right-to-die advocates, whose supposed goal is to benefit terminally ill patients, have their priorities wrong. Patients would benefit most if the government would recognize their right to adequate health care, including hospice care. "Only after this right has been established does it make sense for courts to turn their attention to ... physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia," 13 concludes M. Scott Peck, author of Denial of the Soul: Spiritual and Medical Perspectives on Euthanasia.

More Harm than Good

If euthanasia becomes legal, it will affect more than just a few individuals—it will harm society as a whole. Legalization would result in the deaths of people who do not truly want to die—people who are depressed or who have requested euthanasia only because a doctor or family members have told them they should. Those dying patients who are in great physical pain need better access to hospice care, not euthanasia. Sanctioning physician-assisted death, even in limited circumstances, simply poses too great a threat to patients.

1. Ezekiel Emanuel, "Whose Right to Die?" Atlantic Monthly, March 1997, p. 78.
2. Ezekiel Emanuel, "The Painful Truth About Euthanasia," Wall Street Journal, January 7, 1997, p. A18.
3. Herbert Hendin, Seduced by Death: Doctors, Patients, and the Dutch Cure. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997, p. 156.
4. Burke J. Balch and Randall K. O'Bannon, "Why We Shouldn't Legalize Assisted Suicide, Part I: Suicide and Mental Illness." asisuid1.html.
5. Quoted in New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, When Death Is Sought: Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Medical Context. New York State Department of Health, May 1994, p. 102. death.htm.
6. Hendin, Seduced by Death, p. 157.
7. National Hospice Organization, "Statement of the National Hospice Organization Opposing the Legalization of Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide," 1997. pasposition.htm.
8. Quoted in Joe Loconte, "Hospice, Not Hemlock," Policy Review, March/April 1998, p. 45.
9. Loconte, "Hospice, Not Hemlock," p. 44.
10. Ira Byock, "Why Do We Make Dying So Miserable?" Washington Post, January 22, 1997.
11. Emanuel, "Whose Right to Die?" p. 79.
12. Wesley J. Smith, "Demanding Death-On-Demand,"Heterodoxy, May/June 1996, p. 14.
13. M. Scott Peck, "Living Is the Mystery," Newsweek, March 10, 1997, p.18.
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