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Ethical problems of euthanasia

Does an individual who has no hope of recovery have the right to decide how and when to end their life?

Why euthanasia should be allowed

Those in favour of euthanasia argue that a civilised society should allow people to die in dignity and without pain, and should allow others to help them do so if they cannot manage it on their own.

They say that our bodies are our own, and we should be allowed to do what we want with them. So it's wrong to make anyone live longer than they want. In fact making people go on living when they don't want to violates their personal freedom and human rights.It's immoral, they say to force people to continue living in suffering and pain.

They add that as suicide is not a crime, euthanasia should not be a crime.

Why euthanasia should be forbidden

Religious opponents of euthanasia believe that life is given by God, and only God should decide when to end it.

Other opponents fear that if euthanasia was made legal, thelaws regulating it would be abused, and people would be killed who didn't really want to die.

The legal position

Euthanasia is illegal in most countries, although doctors do sometimes carry out euthanasia even where it is illegal.

Euthanasia is illegal in Britain. To kill another person deliberately is murder or manslaughter, even if the other person asks you to kill them. Anyone doing so could potentially face 14 years in prison.

Under the 1961 Suicide Act, it is also a criminal offence in Britain, punishable by 14 years' imprisonment, to assist, aid or counsel somebody in relation to taking their own life.

Nevertheless, the authorities may decide not to prosecute in cases of euthanasia after taking into account the circumstances of the death.

In September 2009 the Director of Public Prosecutions was forced by an appeal to the House of Lords to make public the criteria that influence whether a person is prosecuted. The factors put a large emphasis on the suspect knowing the person who died and on the death being a one-off occurrence in order to avoid a prosecution.

(Legal position stated at September 2009)

Changing attitudes

The Times (24 January 2007) reported that, according to the 2007 British Social Attitudes survey, 80% of the public said they wanted the law changed to give terminally ill patients the right to die with a doctor's help.

In the same survey, 45% supported giving patients with non-terminal illnesses the option of euthanasia. "A majority" was opposed to relatives being involved in a patient's death.


Overview of pro-euthanasia arguments

Arguments in favour of euthanasia can be broken down into a few main categories:

Arguments based on rights

People have an explicit right to die

A separate right to die is not necessary, because our other human rights imply the right to die

Death is a private matter and if there is no harm to others, the state and other people have no right to interfere (a libertarian argument)

Practical arguments

It is possible to regulate euthanasia

Death is a private matter and if there is no harm to others, the state and other people have no right to interfere (a libertarian argument)

Allowing people to die may free up scarce health resources (this is a possible argument, but no authority has seriously proposed it)

Euthanasia happens anyway (a utilitarian or consequentialist argument)

Philosophical arguments

Euthanasia satisfies the criterion that moral rules must be universalisable

Euthanasia happens anyway (a utilitarian or consequentialist argument)

Is death a bad thing?

Arguments about death itself

Is death a bad thing?


Regulating euthanasia

Those in favour of euthanasia think that there is no reason why euthanasia can't be controlled by proper regulation, but they acknowledge that some problems will remain.

For example, it will be difficult to deal with people who want to implement euthanasia for selfish reasons or pressurise vulnerable patients into dying.

This is little different from the position with any crime. The law prohibits theft, but that doesn't stop bad people stealing things.


People have the right to die

Human beings have the right to die when and how they want to

In...cases where there are no dependants who might exert pressure one way or the other, the right of the individual to choose should be paramount. So long as the patient is lucid, and his or her intent is clear beyond doubt, there need be no further questions.

The Independent, March 2002

Many people think that each person has the right to control his or her body and life and so should be able to determine at what time, in what way and by whose hand he or she will die.

Behind this lies the idea that human beings should be as free as possible - and that unnecessary restraints on human rights are a bad thing.

And behind that lies the idea that human beings are independent biological entities, with the right to take and carry out decisions about themselves, providing the greater good of society doesn't prohibit this. Allied to this is a firm belief that death is the end.

Religious objections

Religious opponents disagree because they believe that the right to decide when a person dies belongs to God.

Secular objections

Secular opponents argue that whatever rights we have are limited by our obligations. The decision to die by euthanasia will affect other people - our family and friends, and healthcare professionals - and we must balance the consequences for them (guilt, grief, anger) against our rights.

We should also take account of our obligations to society, and balance our individual right to die against any bad consequences that it might have for the community in general.

These bad consequences might be practical - such as makinginvoluntary euthanasia easier and so putting vulnerable people at risk.

There is also a political and philosophical objection that says that our individual right to autonomy against the state must be balanced against the need to make the sanctity of life an important, intrinsic, abstract value of the state.

Secular philosophers put forward a number of technical arguments, mostly based on the duty to preserve life because it has value in itself, or the importance of regarding all human beings as ends rather than means.


Other human rights imply a right to die

Without creating (or acknowledging) a specific right to die, it is possible to argue that other human rights ought to be taken to include this right.

The right to life includes the right to die

The right to life is not a right simply to exist

The right to life is a right to life with a minimum quality and value

Death is the opposite of life, but the process of dying is part of life

Dying is one of the most important events in human life

Dying can be good or bad

People have the right to try and make the events in their lives as good as possible

So they have the right to try to make their dying as good as possible

If the dying process is unpleasant, people should have the right to shorten it, and thus reduce the unpleasantness

People also have obligations - to their friends and family, to their doctors and nurses, to society in general

These obligations limit their rights

These obligations do not outweigh a person's right to refuse medical treatment that they do not want

But they do prevent a patient having any right to be killed

But even if there is a right to die, that doesn't mean that doctors have a duty to kill, so no doctor can be forced to help the patient who wants euthanasia.

The right not to be killed

The right to life gives a person the right not to be killed if they don't want to be.

Those in favour of euthanasia will argue that respect for this right not to be killed is sufficient to protect against misuse of euthanasia, as any doctor who kills a patient who doesn't want to die has violated that person's rights.

Opponents of euthanasia may disagree, and argue that allowing euthanasia will greatly increase the risk of people who want to live being killed. The danger of violating the right to life is so great that we should ban euthanasia even if it means violating the right to die.

The rights to privacy and freedom of belief include a right to die

This is the idea that the rights to privacy and freedom of belief give a person the right to decide how and when to die.

The European Convention on Human Rights gives a person the right to die

Not according to Britain's highest court.

It concluded that the right to life did not give any right to self-determination over life and death, since the provisions of the convention were aimed at protecting and preserving life.

English law already acknowledges that people have the right to die

This argument is based on the fact that the Suicide Act (1961) made it legal for people to take their own lives.

Opponents of euthanasia may disagree:

The Suicide Act doesn't necessarily acknowledge a right to die;

it could simply acknowledge that you can't punish someone for succeeding at suicide

and that it's inappropriate to punish someone so distressed that they want to take their own life.

Euthanasia opponents further point out that there is a moral difference between decriminalising something, often for practical reasons like those mentioned above, and encouraging it.

They can quite reasonably argue that the purpose of the Suicide Act is not to allow euthanasia, and support this argument by pointing out that the Act makes it a crime to help someone commit suicide. This is true, but that provision is really there to make it impossible to escape a murder charge by dressing the crime up as an assisted suicide.


Libertarian argument

This is a variation of the individual rights argument.

If an action promotes the best interests of everyone concerned and violates no one's rights then that action is morally acceptable

In some cases, euthanasia promotes the best interests of everyone involved and violates no one's rights

It is therefore morally acceptable

Objections to this argument

Opponents attack the libertarian argument specifically by claiming that there are no cases that fit the conditions above:

people sometimes think things are in their best interests that are not morally acceptable

The arguments that euthanasia is intrinsically wrong fit in here

people are sometimes wrong about what's in their best interests

people may not realise that committing euthanasia may harm other people

euthanasia may deprive both the person who dies and others of benefits

euthanasia is not a private act - we cannot ignore any bad effects it may have on society in general


Medical resources

Euthanasia may be necessary for the fair distribution of health resources

This argument has not been put forward publicly or seriously by any government or health authority. It is included here for completeness.

In most countries there is a shortage of health resources.

As a result, some people who are ill and could be cured are not able to get speedy access to the facilities they need for treatment.

At the same time health resources are being used on people who cannot be cured, and who, for their own reasons, would prefer not to continue living.

Allowing such people to commit euthanasia would not only let them have what they want, it would free valuable resources to treat people who want to live.

Abuse of this would be prevented by only allowing the person who wanted to die to intitiate the process, and by regulationsthat rigorously prevented abuse.

Objections to this argument

This proposal is an entirely pragmatic one; it says that we should allow euthanasia because it will allow more people to be happy. Such arguments will not convince anyone who believes that euthanasia is wrong in principle.

Others will object because they believe that such a proposal is wide-open to abuse, and would ultimately lead to involuntary euthanasia because of shortage of health resources.

In the end, they fear, people will be expected to commit euthanasia as soon as they become an unreasonable burden on society.


Date: 2015-01-02; view: 3091

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