There has been much debate in recent American society over the legality and morality of patients right-to-die. Current legal statue prohibits any form of euthanasia, however, there are many moral and ethical dilemmas concerning the controversy. For the purposes of this essay, I will define euthanasia as the implementation of a decision that a person's life will come to an end before it need stop. In other words, it is a life ending when it would otherwise be prolonged. There is an important distinction between voluntary euthanasia where the decision to terminate life coincides with the individuals wishes and involuntary euthanasia where the individual concerned does not know about the decision and has not approved it in advance. I will be dealing specifically with the concept of voluntary euthanasia, for it seems intuitive that involuntary euthanasia is not only illegal but also profoundly immoral. Opponents’ arguments against euthanasia which fail to substantiate their claims, many proponents’ arguments highlighted by the right to autonomy and empirical examples of legalized euthanasia all prove the moral legitimacy of physician assisted-suicide.
Opponents of euthanasia generally point to three main arguments which I will mention only for the purposes of refuting them. First, many cite the Hippocratic Oath which reads, "I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked nor suggest any such counsel as a reason to oppose euthanasia. Clearly, the Hippocratic Oath does condemn the practice. However, I do not find this as reason enough to reject the moral permissibility of euthanasia. If the premise of the oath is flawed (i.e., if it is morally permissible for a physician to assist in suicide), then a physician should not be prohibited from assisting in suicide simply because of an oath. Indeed, if it is proven (as will be done later in this essay) that euthanasia is a moral way to end needless suffering, then doctors should be obliged to fulfill their patients requests for early death. The second argument that opponents of euthanasia cite is based on the Judeo-Christian ethic of human life being the ultimate value of existence. This argument is vague at best. At the most well-explained level, it says that human life is intrinsically valuable and should be preserved in every instance (because human bodily life is the life of a person) thus euthanasia is wrong because it is killing before life would naturally end. This argument is proven unsound in two ways. First, I believe that human life is distinct from personhood.
Many patients requesting euthanasia have ceased to be persons because they are terminally ill and incapable of enjoying the gift of existence. Thus many of these individuals (and certainly those in a vegetative state with a living will that requests euthanasia) are living lives that are not intrinsically valuable. Second, I disagree with the notion that life is intrinsically valuable and should be preserved in every instance. I believe that life is valuable only inasmuch as it is the basis for rational decision-making. (This argument will be elaborated upon later in the essay). Therefore, we respect the value of life by respecting a person’s autonomy and allowing them to willingly end their life. The final argument given by opponents of euthanasia is the notion of a slippery slope in which legalized voluntary euthanasia will snowball and begin to result in widespread involuntary euthanasia. The basis for this reasoning is that under a system of voluntary euthanasia, doctors must make the final determination of whether a person can be euthanized or not therefore allowing them to decide if a patient’s life is worth living. Many feel that if doctors can do this to competent people, it could snowball to incompetent patients and doctors may make decisions to euthanize without the will of patients. However, I argue that the moral permissibility of euthanasia depends on a patient’s voluntary consent. If a patient does not expressly wish to die, then a doctor who kills a patient without the consent of that patient would be acting immorally. From a legal standpoint, the request for euthanasia would have to come first from the patient, which diminishes the likelihood of involuntary euthanasia occurring. Given these two scenarios, the idea of a slippery slope is dispelled on both a theoretical and a pragmatic level. Furthermore, empirical evidence that will be discussed later disproves the notion of a slippery slope.
In addition to the responses to opponents’ claims, there are many reasons why euthanasia is morally acceptable. The justifications for voluntary active euthanasia rest in four main areas. First, society has a moral obligation to respect individual autonomy when we can do so without harm to others and when doing so does not violate some other moral obligation. This is because life is intrinsically valuable only as a result of its necessity for decision-making and free will. Life without autonomy ceases to be of the utmost value, rather, a person’s right to choose his or her life (and death) course should be the highest priority. This principle guarantees a person’s right to have his or her own decisions respected in determining medical treatment, including euthanasia. The second argument for the moral acceptance of euthanasia rests on the premise of mercy and compassion, two ideals which are essential to human dignity. In most cases when a person requests euthanasia they are suffering unrelenting and continual pain and there is no reasonable possibility of substantial recovery. It is morally repugnant to watch another person suffer through humiliating helplessness and constant pain when one could prevent it. It is widely considered humane to put animals that are permanently physically impaired to death, yet humans cannot currently receive the same mercy under the law, even when they request it. When we are confronted with suffering which is wholly destructive in its consequences and, as far as we can tell, could have no beneficial result, there is a moral obligation to end it. The third affirmation of the moral legitimacy of euthanasia is that of justice. Euthanasia allows for fairer distribution of medical resources in a society which lacks sufficient resources to treat all of its people. Because we have an obligation to relieve suffering, people have a right to whatever medical resources might be effective in the treatment of their condition. However, the scarcity of resources ensures that not all medical claims can be met. Therefore a fair way to distribute medical resources must be found. If treatment must be denied to some people with the result that they will die, then it is better to deny it to those people who are medically unsalvageable and will die soon with or without treatment. The final justification for euthanasia is that the burden of proof for rejecting the morality of the practice should rest with its opponents. It is up to any person or institution wanting to prevent an individual from doing something he or she wants to do to provide sound reasoning which justifies interference.
Since it has already been proven those opponents’ arguments against euthanasia fail to substantiate their claim that it should not occur, then the practice should be considered moral. The Netherlands successful experiment with legalized voluntary euthanasia is further proof that physician-assisted-suicide is a moral action. The Dutch legalized euthanasia partly because they realize that the practice occurs frequently in the status quo and is now entirely at the discretion of physicians. 85% of deaths in the United States occur in hospitals or nursing homes; of those 70% involve withholding life-sustaining treatment. This is certainly a form of euthanasia, yet it is uncontrolled and oftentimes performed without the patient's knowledge. On the contrary, the Dutch system brings the question of euthanasia into the open and allows for regulations which lessen the likelihood of a slippery slope. The requirements for euthanasia under Dutch law are that patients must ask to be euthanized, they must be fully informed of their medical condition, suffering must be intolerable and the process of carrying out the patient’s death wish must be performed by a doctor. These stringent guidelines have created an environment where 2,300 individuals have found relief in the form of euthanasia, a number which represents just 1.8 % of all deaths in the Netherlands. Only 1/3 of all requests for euthanasia are honored by physicians which is proof against the slippery slope argument. A study published by the Dutch government in 1992 further dispels the slippery slope theory. It reported that since euthanasia had been legalized, only 2 cases have been documented where a patient was euthanized without request. In both cases the patient was suffering severe pain and was terminally ill. Given the large numbers of deaths from euthanasia, this statistic seems to be very small in comparison. Also, in no instance has a patient been put to death against his or her expressed or implied wish. This empirical evidence concretely disproves the notion that voluntary euthanasia will somehow snowball to involuntary euthanasia. It is also powerful proof that voluntary euthanasia can be carried out legally and with no great harms to society or individuals.
The unsubstantiated claims of euthanasia opponents, many affirmative arguments supporting the moral permissibility of euthanasia, and the successful Dutch experiment with legalization all prove that euthanasia is a legitimate moral practice. If we do not allow for individual autonomy in determining the scope and extent of medical treatment, then we are sentencing many terminally ill patients to a final stage of life filled with misery and wracked with unrelenting pain. Instead, the moral and ethical course of action is to grant patients who request euthanasia the mercy and relief of a death with dignity.