Sue Rodriguez has reminded us all of our own mortality and our need to think carefully about the kind of society we want to live and to die in. Sue Rodriguez was known through the media, and her well spoken and eloquent speeches. People painfully in support of what she believed in, watched as her strength was sapped by the devastating disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and we were moved by her clear thought and her bravery as a person facing death. Here was a woman who acted on her beliefs with courage and tenacity and whose grace has enriched us all.
It is no defense to point to the fact that a person has requested to be killed: “No person is entitled to consent to have death inflicted upon him, and such consent does not affect the criminal responsibilities of any person by whom death may be inflicted upon the person by whom consent is given,” which seems to mean that no one has a right to consent to have death inflicted on him or her. In addition, if a person causes the death of another, the consent of the deceased does not provide the person who caused the death a defense to criminal responsibility. Is there a difference, do you think, between a person who, at a dying person’s request, prepares a poison and leaves it on the bedside for that person to take, and a person who helps the patient to drink it or who administers it directly at the request of a dying person who is unable to take it personally? Is there, in short, a real distinction between killing and letting die? Well, this is the difference between passive and active euthanasia, and if you believe in euthanasia, you must decide which one is correct or even accept both to be correct depending upon the situation. We must carefully think through a number of conceptual issues. What is a person? What is death? How does the difference between active and passive function in arguments for and against euthanasia? Is there any difference between killing and letting die? Suppose the doctor agrees to withhold treatment… The justification for his doing so is that the patient is in terrible agony, and since he is going to die anyway, it would be wrong to prolong his suffering needlessly.
But now notice this. If one simply withholds treatment, it may take the patient longer to die, and so he may suffer more than he would if more direct action were taken and a lethal injection given. This fact provides strong reason for thinking that, once the initial decision not to prolong his agony has been made, active euthanasia is actually preferable to passive euthanasia, rather than the reverse.
Individuals have the right to decide about their own lives and deaths. Denying terminally ill patients the right to die with dignity is unfair and cruel. The golden rule requires that we allow active euthanasia for terminally ill patients who request it in certain situations. People have the right to die with dignity and lucidity. Gayle Stelter (Vancouver Sun) writes, “For almost seven years I have been living with cancer, mostly joyously and gratefully, but gradually seeing the disease encroaching relentlessly on my once healthy body. Throughout these years, I have thought long and hard about death and I’ve discovered that it’s not the prospect of death itself that is so frightening, but the process of dying. So to give myself courage, I have held an option in reserve.
When I can see no quality ahead, when I am capable of bidding my loved ones a coherent farewell, when I am still in control of my resources, I will enlist someone’s help to speed me on my journey. … For those of us who may choose to leave while there is still an element of control, of coherence, may we be fortunate to have a friend, a loved one, a health professional who will use their gifts in order that we may be excused. To deny such expert guidance in this last rite would be both heartless and inhuman.
” Another person I had read about states: “I have multiple myeloma…a rare bone marrow cancer…that destroys the blood, bones, immune system, kidneys and sometimes liver and spleen. The worst of it is the disintegration of the skeleton…Unless one is lucky enough to die of sepsis first, the death is long and agonizing. The act of sitting up can fracture the vertebrae and lifting the dinner tray can fracture both forearms. Who deserves that? For what principle?” I believe that there are some circumstances when euthanasia is the morally correct action. I also understand that there are real concerns about legalizing euthanasia because of fear of misuse and/or overuse and the fear of the slippery slope leading to a loss of respect for the value of life.
We do need to proceed with caution. Euthanasia is homicide. Some homicides are justified. Life at some point can become so unpleasant and so hopeless that virtually no one would wish to continue it, and the opponent of euthanasia must face up to this fact honestly.
Suffering can take many forms, physical, mental and emotional. Not all of these are relevant to euthanasia – I have not heard anyone suggest, for example, mercy killing for the clinically depressed – but many are, in particular physical agony and the emotional despair of extreme disability. People have always killed themselves, for reasons that seemed good to them, and it has long been recognized that laws against suicide serve little or no purpose. This issue remains a live one with respect to euthanasia because it is plausibly pointed out that, if you have a legal right to commit suicide, and you are physically unable to do so unaided, it seems unfair to prosecute someone who helps you. Suffering and suicides are perennial factors, but today’s conditions have added a host of other complications. In particular, we have medical techniques that can preserve life far beyond what would have been possible in the past.