Death Can Come Too Late Active and Passive Euthanasia
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Death Can Come Too Late: Active and Passive Euthanasia
Death is deeply personal, generally feared, and wholly inescapable, but medical technology now can prolong our biological existence virtually indefinitely, and, with these advances, comes the question of whether we should pursue the extension of life in all cases. Most people would agree that, under certain circumstances, it would be preferable to cease our hold on life. Nearly everyone can agree that there are situations when terminally ill patients have the right to call for a halt to life-extending treatments, and that their physicians will have the moral obligation to comply. What appears to be quite difficult for us as a society to come to terms with is the thought that someone would actively intervene in the "natural" process of the death of another human being. Why is it tolerable, even desirable, to intervene (with decidedly unnatural technology) in the "natural" process of death when it results in extending life, but intolerable and morally abhorrent when we act to speed the patient to his or her unavoidable death?
Certain members of society see active euthanasia as "killing," where passive euthanasia is viewed in the more favorable light of "letting one die". My question is this: how are the two morally different? Examine the following case:
Perry L. was a nineteen-year-old who played in a local band, loved the outdoors, and planned to become a doctor. One night in 1989 while driving a skidoo he ran headlong into a tree. Perry no longer has any cognitive abilities, he does not recognize anyone that he once knew, he cannot communicate in any way, and he has no meaningful control over his body or its functions. Perry will never recover any of his lost abilities and he will never leave the hospital. His family has been impacted in ways no one could have foreseen; his parents have divorced as a direct result of this accident and his only brother refuses to visit, insisting that his brother died in 1989. Perry was kept alive long enough for his critical injuries to heal, allowing him to recover the ability to breath unassisted once weaned off a respirator. This means that he will continue to live, if one can call his existence living, for years to come.
Perry's mother, who refused the suggestion of "letting him die" while her son was comatose, acknowledges that he would not have wanted to live in his present condition. She refused the suggestion of letting him die while he was comatose, by her own admission, because she could not accept the guilt she felt at the thought of his slow death from starvation (which is the commonly accepted, and legally permissible, form of passive euthanasia). Had the more humane option of active euthanasia been available, she would have chosen that path for her son. When one sees Perry, one has to ask in whose best interest was it that he was saved? What possible good can be said to have been achieved in prolonging the existence of someone who can no longer even realize what the word "life" means? Our society needs to examine the reason why one type of euthanasia is condoned where another form, often less brutal, is refused.
Certain clarifications are necessary before discussion can begin on whether there truly is a moral difference between active and passive euthanasia as the two terms are commonly used today. Barron's Medical Guide defines the word euthanasia as "the act of deliberately causing another's death to relieve suffering". It is broken down into active euthanasia, which is "the use of artificial means to hasten death", or passive euthanasia, which is the "withholding of treatment necessary for the prolongation of life". Interestingly, both are classified as "mercy killing". At least in this particular situation, the medical community does not distinguish between killing and allowing to die. For the purposes of this paper, I will adhere to Barron's definition - that euthanasia is intended to relieve suffering, generally for those patients who are in the later stages of terminal illness, or those who face prolonged or significantly painful treatments for disease or injury.
Certain philosophers have argued that there is a monumental moral difference between active and passive euthanasia. They attempt to make this
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Euthanasia, Medical ethics, Disability rights, Voluntary euthanasia, James Rachels, Animal euthanasia, Religious views on euthanasia, Legality of euthanasia
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