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[Greek, good death.] The term normally implies an intentional termination of life by another at the explicit request of the person who wishes to die. Euthanasia is generally defined as the act of killing an incurably ill person out of concern and compassion for that person's suffering. It is sometimes called mercy killing, but many advocates of euthanasia define mercy killing more precisely as the ending of another person's life without his or her request. Euthanasia, on the other hand, is usually separated into two categories: passive euthanasia and active euthanasia. In many jurisdictions, active euthanasia can be considered murder or Manslaughter, whereas passive euthanasia is accepted by professional medical societies, and by the law under certain circumstances.
Hastening the death of a person by altering some form of support and letting nature take its course is known as passive euthanasia. Examples include such things as turning off respirators, halting medications, discontinuing food and water so as to allowing a person to dehydrate or starve to death, or failure to resuscitate.
Passive euthanasia also includes giving a patient large doses of morphine to control pain, in spite of the likelihood that the painkiller will suppress respiration and cause death earlier than it otherwise would have happened. Such doses of painkillers have a dual effect of relieving pain and hastening death. Administering such medication is regarded as ethical in most political jurisdictions and by most medical societies.
These procedures are performed on terminally ill, suffering persons so that natural death will occur sooner. They are also commonly performed on persons in a persistent vegetative state; for example, individuals with massive brain damage or in a coma from which they likely will not regain consciousness.
Far more controversial, active euthanasia involves causing the death of a person through a direct action, in response to a request from that person. A well-known example of active euthanasia was the death of a terminally ill Michigan patient on September 17, 1998. On that date, Dr. Jack Kevorkian videotaped himself administering a lethal medication to Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old Michigan man with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. CBS broadcast the videotape on 60 Minutes less than a week later. Authorities subsequently charged Kevorkian with first-degree premeditated murder, criminal assistance of a suicide, and delivery of a controlled substance for administering lethal medication to a terminally ill man. There was no dispute that the dose was administered at the request of Mr. Youk, nor any dispute that Mr. Youk was terminally ill. A jury found Kevorkian guilty of second-degree murder in 1999. He was sent to prison.
Somewhat of a hybrid between passive and active euthanasia is physician-assisted suicide (PAS), also known as voluntary passive euthanasia. In this situation, a physician supplies information and/or the means of committing suicide (e.g., a prescription for lethal dose of sleeping pills, or a supply of carbon monoxide gas) to a person, so that that individual can successfully terminate his or her own life.
Physician-assisted suicide received greater public attention after Dr. Kevorkian, a retired pathologist from Michigan, participated in his first such procedure in 1990. Kevorkian set up a machine that allowed a 54-year-old woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease (a degenerative neurological condition) to press a button that delivered a lethal poison into her veins. Kevorkian went on to assist in the suicides of dozens of individuals suffering from terminal, debilitating, or chronic illnesses. In 1992, Michigan passed an assisted-suicide bill (Mich. Comp. Laws § 752.1021) that was specifically designed to stop Kevorkian's activities, but technicalities and questions as to its constitutionality delayed its implementation, thus allowing Kevorkian to continue assisting suicides—often in direct opposition to court injunctions.
Kevorkian was charged with murder several times but was not initially found guilty. When murder charges were brought against him for his first three assisted suicides, for example, they were dismissed because Michigan, at that time, had no law against assisted suicide. In 1994, Kevorkian was tried and found not guilty of assisting in the August 1993 suicide of Thomas W. Hyde Jr. In December 1994, however, Michigan's supreme court ruled in People v. Kevorkian, 447 Mich. 436, 527 N.W. 2d 714, that there is no constitutional right to commit suicide, with or without assistance, and upheld the Michigan statute that made assisted suicide a crime. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Kevorkian's appeal from the state supreme court's ruling.
Observers disagree about the humanity of Kevorkian's activities. Some see him as a hero who sought to give suffering people greater choice and dignity in dying. Others point to his lack of procedural precautions and fear that the widespread practice of assisted suicide will lead to the unnecessary death of people who could have been helped by other means, including treatment for depression. Many opponents of assisted suicide find the same faults in the practice that they see in other forms of euthanasia. They envision its leading to a devaluation of human life and even to a genocidal killing of vulnerable or so-called undesirable individuals.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made two important rulings on assisted suicide. In washington v. glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 117 S.Ct. 2258, 138 L.Ed.2d 772, 65 (1997), three terminally ill patients, four physicians, and a non-profit organization had brought action against the state of Washington for Declaratory Judgment, that a statute banning assisted suicide violated due process clause. On June 26, 1997, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the right of states to prohibit assisted suicide, holding that: (1) asserted right to assistance in committing suicide was not a fundamental liberty interest protected by due process clause, and (2) Washington's ban on assisted suicide was rationally related to legitimate government interests. In Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793, 117 S.Ct. 2293, 138 L.Ed.2d 834 (1997), physicians challenged the constitutionality of New York statutes making it a crime to aid a person in committing suicide or attempting to commit suicide. The Supreme Court held that New York's prohibition on assisting suicide did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The term involuntary euthanasia is used to describe the killing of a person who has not explicitly requested aid in dying. This term is most often used with respect to patients who are in a persistent vegetative state and who probably will never recover consciousness.
Euthanasia is a divisive topic, and different interpretations of its meaning, practice, and morality abound. Those who favor active euthanasia and a patient's right to die, do not acknowledge a distinction between active and passive euthanasia. They assert that the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment cannot be distinguished in principle from affirmative steps to hasten a patient's death. In both situations, they argue, a person intends to cause the patient's death, acts out of compassionate motives, and causes the same outcome. In their view, turning off a life-sustaining respirator switch and giving a lethal injection are morally equivalent actions.
Opponents of active euthanasia argue that it undermines the value of, and respect for, all human life; erodes trust in physicians; desensitizes society to killing; and contradicts many people's religious beliefs. Moreover, they maintain that the intentions and natures of active and passive euthanasia are not essentially the same. In active euthanasia, a person directly intends to cause death and uses available means to achieve this end. In passive euthanasia, a person decides against using a certain form of treatment and then directs that such treatment be withdrawn or withheld, accepting but not intending the patient's death, which is caused by the underlying illness.
While people cite differing reasons for choosing to end their own lives, those suffering from a terminal illness typically state that a serious disorder or disease has adversely affected their quality of life to the point where they no longer wish to continue living. Under such circumstances, patients may have been diagnosed with a degenerative, progressive illness such as ALS, Huntington's disease, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, or Alzheimer's disease. Patients with such illnesses often fear, with good reason, a gradual loss of the quality of life in the future as the disease or disorder progresses, or they might already have lost a good deal of their independence and thus might require continuous care. Some feel that this loss of autonomy causes an unacceptable loss of personal dignity. Others realize that they will be dying in the near future and simply want to have total control over the process. Some point out that in addition to physical considerations, they do not want to diminish their assets by incurring large medical costs as their death approaches. They feel that they ought to have the option to die sooner and to pass on their assets to their beneficiaries.
Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide
Imagine that you are suffering from a disease that is terminal, debilitating, and very painful. Should you have the right to die when you wish rather than live in continued agony? Should your doctor be legally free to help you take your own life, perhaps by prescribing some pills and telling you their fatal dosage? Or should the law forbid anyone—including doctors—to assist in the suicide of another human being? These are just some of the questions that surround the issue of physician-assisted suicide, a widely debated ethical issue in modern medicine.
Physician-assisted suicide is a form of voluntary euthanasia. In other words, it involves a patient voluntarily acting to end his or her life. Physician-assisted suicide differs from conventional suicide in that it is facilitated by a physician who confirms the patient's diagnosis, rules out conditions such as depression that may be clouding the patient's judgment, and finally provides the means for committing suicide. Such action usually consists of taking a lethal overdose of prescription medication. However, the over 130 patients who were assisted by Dr. Jack Kevorkian between 1990 and 1998 chose to press a button which delivered a lethal poison into their veins, or to put on a mask that emitted carbon monoxide into their lungs. Assisted suicide is a felony offense in most states and is also expressly forbidden in the American Medical Association's (AMA's) Code of Medical Ethics. In 1999, Kevorkian was found guilty of second-degree murder in an assisted suicide case. He was sentenced to serve 10 to 25 years.
The debate surrounding physician-assisted suicide in the United States has been influenced by medical practices in other countries, particularly the Netherlands, which legalized both active euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, in April 2001 (effective 2002). Physician-assisted suicide in the Netherlands is conducted within strict guidelines that include the following requirements: the patient's request for assisted suicide must be voluntary, the patient must be experiencing intolerable suffering, all other alternatives for treatment must have been explored, and the physician must consult another independent physician before proceeding. A study commissioned by the Dutch government indicated that, in 2001, about 3,500 deaths, or 2.5 percent of the 140,000 death cases that were reported in the Netherlands that year, occurred by active euthanasia. The study, known as the Remmelink Report, defined euthanasia as the termination of life at the patient's request. Figures also indicated that 300 deaths, or 0.2 percent, were caused by physician-assisted suicide.
In the United States, the debate on legalizing assisted suicide began in earnest in the 1970s. On one side of the debate have been Patients' Rights groups who have lobbied for what they call the right to die—or the right to choose to die, as some have clarified it— of terminally ill patients. The strongest opposition to the legalization of physician-assisted suicide has come from physicians' groups such as the AMA and from religious groups that are morally opposed to the practice.
One person who has done much to make the case for physician-assisted suicide is Derek Humphry, a former journalist who founded the Hemlock Society, in 1980, after seeing the pain and suffering his first wife experienced when she died from cancer. In 2003, the organization changed its name to End-of-Life Choices, which encompasses more clearly the issues supported by its members. With a new name and a new motto, "Dignity Compassion Control," the organization continues to advocate for the right of terminally ill people to choose voluntary euthanasia, or what Humphry has termed self-deliverance.
Humphry has written several books on the subject of voluntary euthanasia, including Jean's Way (1978), which recounts his struggle to assist his wife's death in 1975; Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying (1991), a controversial book that gives detailed advice on how terminally ill people may take their own life; and Lawful Exit: The Limits of Freedom for Help in Dying (1993), which contains Humphry's own recommendations for legislation that would legalize physician-assisted suicide and active voluntary euthanasia. In Humphry's words, the "right to choose to die" is "the ultimate civil liberty."
Humphry presents physician-assisted suicide as a merciful, dignified option for people whose illness has eroded their quality of life beyond the limits of tolerance. He also points out that what he calls beneficent euthanasia occurs every day in medical facilities as physicians make decisions regarding the end of life. Others, including some medical ethicists, go so far as to claim that a decision to withhold antibiotics, oxygen, or nutrition from a terminally ill patient is no less "active" a form of euthanasia than is administering a fatal dose of morphine. Indeed, they see the common practice of withholding life support as more open to potential abuse than the practice of physician-assisted suicide. The former, they argue, is a less visible, less easily regulated decision. Proponents of physician-assisted suicide also claim that diseases kill people in far more cruel ways than would any means of death that a physician might provide for an irreversibly ill patient. As a result, they see the action of assisting in suicide as entirely compatible with the physician's duty to the patient.
However, Humphry has been an open critic of Kevorkian's work. He has described Kevorkian's theory and practice of assisted suicide as open-ended euthanasia. Noting Kevorkian's lack of precautionary measures such as the use of waiting periods and second opinions, Humphry sees any wider application of Kevorkian's methods as potentially leading to abuse and tragedy. "The thinking people in our movement are appalled by it," Humphry said. "If you have Kevorkian's type of euthanasia, it will be a slippery slope. Kevorkian's is a recipe for skiing down a glacier."
Detractors of physician-assisted suicide also use the familiar "slippery slope" argument, proposing that once physician-assisted suicide is legalized, other forms of euthanasia will more likely be practiced as well. They see assisted suicide as potentially leading to situations in which elderly, chronically ill, and handicapped people, along with others, are killed through active, nonvoluntary euthanasia. Related to this idea is the view that widespread practice of physician-assisted suicide might claim the lives of those whose intolerable suffering is caused by treatable depression. They point out that terminally ill people or others in pain are often also suffering from depression, and that despite their illness, their feelings of hopelessness can often be addressed through means such as counseling and antidepressant medication.
The Catholic Church is one of many religious organizations that opposes euthanasia and assisted suicide. In Pope John Paul II's words, medical killings such as those caused by assisted suicide are "crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize." Basing its arguments on passages from the Bible, Catholic theology has for many centuries opposed all forms of suicide. Catholicism argues that innocent human life may not be destroyed for any reason whatsoever.
The debate over physician-assisted suicide eventually reached the Supreme Court. In 1994, an advocacy group known as Compassion in Dying filed two lawsuits (Compassion in Dying et al v. Washington and Quill et al v. Vacco) challenging the constitutionality of state laws banning assisted dying in Washington and New York. Compassion in Dying won in the District Court in Washington. Chief Judge Barbara Rothstein wrote, "There is no more profoundly personal decision, nor one which is closer to the heart of personal liberty, than the choice which a terminally ill person makes to end his or her suffering and hasten an inevitable death." In New York, Compassion in Dying lost and filed an appeal in the Second Circuit.
In 1995, Washington's Compassion ruling was overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, reinstating the anti-suicide law. In 1996, however, after reconsideration, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a reversal decision in Compassion v. Washington. That decision held that assisted dying was protected by liberty and privacy provisions of the U.S. Constitution. The majority wrote that, "Those who believe strongly that death must come without physician assistance are free to follow that creed, be they doctors or patients. They are not free, however, to force their views, their religious convictions, or their philosophies on all the other members of a democratic society, and to compel those whose values differ with theirs to die painful, protracted, and agonizing deaths."
In April 1996, the Second Circuit joined the Ninth in recognizing constitutional protection for assisted dying in the Quill case, holding that the New York statutes criminalizing assisted suicide violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, on June 26, 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed both the Ninth and Second Circuit Court in washington v. glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 117 S.Ct. 2258, 138 L.Ed.2d 772 (1997) and Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 743, 117 S.Ct. 2293, 138 L.Ed.2d 834 (1997). The Court ruled that state laws against assisting a suicide are not unconstitutional, but also stated that patients have a right to aggressive treatment of pain and other symptoms, even if the treatment hastens death. The Court wrote, "Throughout the Nation, Americans are engaged in an earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality and practicality of physician assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society."
Ultimately then, the voters and representatives of the states and the legal system itself will have to decide whether or not physician-assisted suicide will be legalized. Regardless of what side prevails in the debate, the exchange of ideas that it creates may lead to a greater understanding of the difficult choices surrounding death in our time.
Cohen-Almagor, Raphael. 2001. The Right to Die With Dignity: An Argument in Ethics, Medicine, and Law. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press.
End of Life Choices. Available online at <www.endoflifechoices.org> (accessed August 25, 2003).
Hendin, Herbert. 2002. "The Dutch Experience." Issues in Law & Medicine (spring).
Some patients who decide that they wish to commit suicide are unable or unwilling to accomplish the act without assistance from their physician. Physician-assisted suicide helps them to die under conditions, and at the time, that they wish. PAS is currently legal in the U.S., only in the state of Oregon, under severe restrictions. In other states, a terminally ill patient who wishes to die must continue living until their body eventually collapses, or until a family member or friend commits a criminal act by helping them to commit suicide.
Traditional Christian beliefs concerning all forms of suicide were well documented by Thomas Aquinas during the thirteenth century. He condemned all suicide (whether assisted or not) on the theory that it violated one's natural desire to live. Among European writers, Michel de Montaigne was the first major dissenter on this issue. During the sixteenth century, he wrote a series of essays arguing that suicide should be a matter of personal choice, a human right. He concluded it to be a rational option under certain circumstances.
Attempting to commit suicide was once a criminal act. It has been decriminalized for many decades in most jurisdictions. However, assisted suicide remains a criminal act throughout the United States, with the exception of the state of Oregon. In that state, it is permitted under tightly controlled conditions.
Oregon's Euthanasia Law
In 1994, voters in the state of Oregon approved a ballot measure that would have legalized euthanasia under limited conditions. Under the Death With Dignity law, a person who sought physician-assisted suicide would have to meet certain criteria:
- The person must be terminally ill.
- The person must have six months or less to live.
- The person must make two oral requests for assistance in dying.
- The person must make one written request for assistance in dying.
- The person must convince two physicians that he or she is sincere and not acting on a whim, and that the decision is voluntary.
- The person must not have been influenced by depression.
- The person must be informed of "the feasible alternatives," including, but not limited to, comfort care, hospice care, and pain control.
- The person must wait for 15 days.
Under the proposed law, a person who met all requirements could receive a prescription of a barbiturate that would be sufficient to cause death. Physicians would be prohibited from inducing death by injection or carbon monoxide.
The National Right to Life Committee, supported by the Roman Catholic Church, obtained a court Injunction to delay implementation of the measure. The law stalled in the appeals process. In the meantime, the measure was not enacted. In 1997, there was a second public Referendum, and the law was enacted. Within 24 hours of the announcement of the results, state officials had forms for physicians to record instances of assisted suicide. These were later distributed to physicians in the state. The form is entitled "Request for Medication to End My Life in a Humane and Dignified Manner."
Immediately after the law was affirmed, Thomas Constantine, the administrator of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), wrote a policy statement which said that prescribing drugs to help terminally ill patients kill themselves would be a violation of the Controlled Substances Act. Nevertheless, on March 26, 1998, a woman in her mid-eighties died from a lethal dose of barbiturates, which had been prescribed by her doctor under the Oregon law. She was the first person to publicly use the law to commit suicide. She had been fighting breast cancer for 20 years and recently had been told by her doctor that she had less than two months to live. She had been experiencing increased difficulty breathing. She made a tape recording in which she stated, "I'm looking forward to it. I will be relieved of all the stress I have." Her personal doctor would not help her end her life, so she turned to an advocacy group, Compassion in Dying. That group located a doctor to assist her. She fell into a deep sleep about five minutes after taking the lethal dose of pills, and she died peacefully about 25 minutes later. Attorney General Janet Reno officially reversed Constantine's ruling a few weeks later, stating that doctors who use the law to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients will not be prosecuted and that drug laws were intended to block illegal trafficking in drugs, not to cover situations like the Oregon suicide law.
Despite significant controversy, by the end of 1998, one prediction of the anti-choice forces had not materialized: there was no rush of people to Oregon to seek an easy end to life. While it was predicted that many would take advantage of the law, of the 23 terminally ill individuals who applied to end their own lives in 1998, 15 committed suicide, usually within a day of receiving the prescription. Six died from their illnesses without using the medication. Two remained alive at the end of 1998. From 1998 to 2002, 129 people have opted for physician assisted suicide.
In early 2001, Oregon state senator Ron Wyden wrote Attorney General john ashcroft asking that the george w. bush administration not mount an attack on the state law permitting assistance in suicide. Ashcroft wrote a letter to Asa Hutchinson, chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration. He declared that assisting a terminally ill patient to commit suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" for federally controlled drugs. He said that physicians who use drugs to help patients die face suspension or revocation of their licenses to prescribe federally controlled drugs. This was contrary to the position taken by Janet Reno, his predecessor. The attorney general of Oregon, Hardy Myers, quickly initiated a lawsuit to have the Ashcroft's directive declared unconstitutional. The federal district court in Oregon issued a temporary injunction, which prevents the federal government from enforcing Ashcroft's interpretation of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The state of Oregon requested that the court block the federal department of justice from taking legal action against Oregon doctors who prescribe medication to help their patients commit suicide. A federal judge ruled in favor of the state law in 2002, and the Department of Justice appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Both sides have stated that they will appeal the decision if they lose.
According to the online website, Euthanasia.com, 35 states have legislated against assisted suicide, while nine other states have cited it as a crime under Common Law. Still more states have introduced or passed statutes criminalizing assisted suicide. These statutes forbid a person to knowingly assist or aid another in committing suicide. Some also prohibit soliciting, advising, or encouraging another to commit suicide. Some statutes penalize assisted suicide under guidelines established for murder or manslaughter, whereas others make it a unique offense with separate penalties. Few courts have interpreted the assisted-suicide statutes, because prosecutions for assisted suicide are rare. In cases of assisted suicide, a state usually prosecutes individuals for murder or manslaughter. The Ohio state supreme court, however, ruled in 1996 that assisted suicide is not a crime.
Behuniak, Susan M. 2003. Physician-Assisted Suicide: The Anatomy of a Constitutional Law Issue. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.
Dyck, Arthur J. 2001. When Killing Is Wrong: Physician-Assisted Suicide and the Courts. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press.
Euthanasia.com. Available online at <www.euthanasia.com> (accessed November 10, 2003).
Palmer, Larry I. 2000. Endings and Beginnings: Law, Medicine, and Society in Assisted Life and Death. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.