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Assisted Suicide, Another Law School For You

  |   By   |   paul samakowOpen link in another window

Assisted suicide is also known as euthanasia. The word originated in Greece and means “good death. ” It is the practice of helping someone end their life, with the intention of relieving suffering and pain.

The law has something to say on this subject, much like it does with most human endeavors.

Subjects dealing with life and death are always controversial.

When pain or illness is so severe, or an illness is determined to be terminal, such that the only possible relief is death, some would argue that an individual suffering should be allowed to choose his or her fate.  Indeed, very sane, measured and healthy people write into their Wills that they do not want any extraordinary means or measures taken if and when their medical condition reaches a certain point.

Thus, what is the law, and where is it legal for someone else to assist to end another’s life?  An overwhelming portion of the world does not allow assisted suicide.

The law around the world and in the United States

Euthanasia is legal in Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Japan, Canada, Albania, Colombia, Germany and Switzerland.

In the United States, in 1997, the Supreme Court decided Washington v. Glucksberg.  The majority opinion in that case was:

The history of the law’s treatment of assisted suicide in this country has been and continues to be one of the rejection of nearly all efforts to permit it.  That being the case, our decisions lead us to conclude that the asserted “right” to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause.

 A portion of a legal brief filed in that case had the following language:

A state’s categorical ban on physician assistance to suicide – as applied to competent, terminally ill patients who wish to avoid unendurable pain and hasten inevitable death – substantially interferes with “this” protected liberty interest and cannot be sustained.

Since 1997, the law has moved a little, albeit slowly, to acceptance of euthanasia in this country.

“Death with Dignity” laws exist only in Washington, D.C. and five states in this country – California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.  Montana allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to competent terminally ill patients.

Yet, currently, twenty-nine states are considering “death with dignity” laws.

Surveys taken in the United States indicated that about 46% of physicians agree that in certain situations, euthanasia should be allowed.  Forty-one percent completely disagree.  The remaining fourteen percent waffle based on the situation.

The human spirit of fighting and trying to survive is one that when seen is applauded worldwide.  People seen on videos, trapped on mountains, stranded in oceans, fighting for their lives in caves, and on and on, draw universal praise, despite the knowledge of those watching that the individuals are suffering pain that would otherwise be unimaginable.  Yet, the hope is for survival.  The prayer is for survival.

Pain Avoidance

Unbearable pain is probably the major argument in favor of euthanasia.  Some note that drugs and medications can virtually eliminate the pain. But advocates ask if   being in a drugged state to avoid pain is living with dignity.

The word dignity then enters the discussion. How is measured?  And by whom?

Morality

Morality is probably the next argument in the debate. Those against the practice offer that euthanasia is immoral because life must be preserved and protected. Advocates offer that the issue or morality does not consider the individual’s self-determined choice.

Rights

Euthanasia discussion always involve a discussion of “rights.” Those rights are deemed “the right to live” and “the right to die.”

Proponents of euthanasia believe we all have a “right” to die, to commit suicide.  They point out that self-determination is one of the key elements that make us human.

Others argue that the individual in pain most often is not taking their own life, but is being assisted by someone.  They argue that the law is not about giving rights to the person afflicted, but to doctors, relatives and others who can directly and intentionally end another person’s life.

A distinction is important here. Suicide and attempted suicide are not criminal acts.  Suicide is a tragic, often very sad individual act.  Euthanasia is about allowing someone else to facilitate the death of another.

Who decides?  Abuse?

Still another point of disagreement is the effect laws allowing euthanasia would have on who decides to end someone else’s life.  Detractors argue that allowing others to assist those wanting to die is a “slippery slope” which could lead to exploitation, abuse, and withholding care for those who are vulnerable.

Who makes the choice for an individual unable to communicate, in extreme and constant pain, or terminally ill?  The answer is typically that a doctor, or a group of doctors would have that ultimate responsibility.

Doctors take the ancient Hippocratic oath as they begin their medical careers.  It originally was interpreted to prohibit doctors from killing patients, or from helping patients kill themselves, even upon the request of the patient.

More recently, the oath has been interpreted for doctors to “do no harm.”  Therein, an interpretation has been made that doing no harm can mean the wellbeing of the patient, which includes not allowing a patient to suffer.  The argument is that the doctor does more harm to the patient by allowing them to remain alive.

The “slippery slope” arguments by those opposed to euthanasia include that those who are most vulnerable to abuse, error or indifference are the poor, minorities and those who are least educated and least empowered.  They argue that the physicians making judgments are not exempt from the prejudices “manifest” in other areas of our nation’s collective life.

Dutch doctors are now helping people die if they no longer want to bear depression, autism, blindness, or even being dependent on the care of others.  Babies can be euthanized there, as can children up to age 15.

In 2008, Medicaid officials in Oregon, where euthanasia is legal, denied a request by a couple, both suffering from cancer, to receive costly treatment services.  Instead, the denial letter listed alternatives, including an offer to pay for assisted suicide.

Medicare now spends approximately thirty percent of its total budget on beneficiaries in their final year of life.

Religion

 Finally, religious issues are always a part of life and death discussions.  The Sixth Commandment says clearly “Thou shall not kill.”  The argument follows that both suicide, and assisting someone, are both against the will of God and is therefore sinful.

Judaism recognizes the pain that can be suffered by a dying individual and its effects on the family, however, even in the face of extreme desperation when it might appear that life has no meaning, Judaism firmly believes that only God has the right to extinguish life.

Euthanasia in Islam is forbidden because it encompasses a positive role on the part of the physician to end a life, and this is an act of killing – a major sin and forbidden in Islam.

Back to the Law  — the trend

Neither the law, nor medicine, requires that “everything be done” to keep someone alive.  Doing that, keeping someone alive, against their wishes, is actually opposite to law and current practice.  Indeed, many would agree that keeping someone alive with continued attempts to cure are neither compassionate nor wise, or even medically sound.

May you and your life’s experience never suffer this situation.