Euthanasia is the most controversial of the options for “assisted death”. It is also the option with the strongest arguments. Before discussing the arguments for euthanasia, it is important to understand exactly what it entails. Although they are often discussed as one concept, assisted suicide and euthanasia are actually quite different practices.
Euthanasia involves ending the life of another person (usually with their consent), usually because the suffering exceeds an acceptable threshold. For example, a terminally ill patient may ask for his life to be ended so that he does not have to suffer further pain or mental anguish. In assisted suicide, on the other hand, a third party helps another person take his own life, but does not directly participate in the termination of life (e.g. by giving him a lethal injection). In this article, we look at three compelling arguments for euthanasia – and some limitations of each.
Euthanasia on behalf of suffering people
If someone is suffering unbearably, why do we have a duty not to cause him more suffering? Many people believe that such a person has a right to die to end his suffering. Others believe that a person has a moral right to euthanasia even if he is not suffering unbearably. The most prominent argument for euthanasia on behalf of suffering people is the following: The problem with waiting This is perhaps the most pervasive argument for euthanising people with terminal illnesses. It has been promoted by former British Prime Minister David Cameron, Pope Francis, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations.
The argument goes something like this: People with incurable diseases often suffer terribly while waiting for treatment. They can live for years in great pain and completely dependent on others. Often treatment is too late or does not work. Cameron stated in 2015, “The problem here is that we are not doing enough to encourage people to move forward, to stay ahead of technology and to delay what may be the very last phase of their lives.” Pope Francis agreed, saying, “Inequality in the distribution of health services leads to the exclusion of minorities and vulnerable groups, which in turn leads to an unfair burden on society as a whole.”
The WHO stated in 2016, “People with disabilities experience significant barriers in accessing healthcare services and treatments, including delays in diagnosis and in accessing palliative care.” The UN in 2015 urged member states to expand access to euthanasia laws: “Euthanasia laws should be amended to allow doctors to provide assisted dying to people with disabilities who request it, who are experiencing severe and prolonged pain or who have advanced persistent illness.” There are a couple of problems with this argument.
First, there is no reason to think that people with incurable disease are more likely to suffer unbearably than those in remission. Perhaps this argument is based on a false premise. Second, there is no evidence that legalising euthanasia would lead to a significant increase in the number of people receiving euthanasia. Some studies even suggest that such legalisation could lead to a decrease in the number of people receiving euthanasia, because it would be much easier to end your life without the threat of prosecution.
Euthanasia to prevent end-of-life suffering.
Many people believe it is a great injustice to cause suffering at the end of life. Euthanasia on this basis is widely promoted as a way to avoid the worst suffering for people with a terminal illness that has no cure. There are many reasons to support this view. One is the general intuition that we should not cause unnecessary suffering. In addition, many people feel end-of-life suffering is unjust because it burdens future generations with medical care for a disease that kills the patient.
The most prominent argument for euthanising people with terminal illnesses on this basis is the following: The problem with waiting In this argument, euthanasia is used to ensure that people with a terminal illness receive treatment sooner rather than later. Patients with a prognosis of less than six months to live may find it difficult to accept being deprived of the choice to end their suffering overnight.
The argument goes something like this: If a patient wants to end his life earlier, but his doctor prefers to wait until more time has passed, the patient can be euthanised to ensure he gets the treatment he wants. There are a couple of problems with this argument. First, there is no evidence that this practice achieves what it aims to do. Second, there is no reason to treat every patient with a terminal illness as a medical decision-maker. Patients with a terminal illness, like everyone else, have the right to be left alone until they are no longer competent to make medical decisions.
Euthanasia as a response to loss of autonomy.
Many people believe that once someone is a patient, a doctor has a duty to provide the best possible treatment, even if that means the patient is likely to die. In this view, euthanasia becomes a moral option when people with a terminal illness lose the ability to make their own medical decisions. The most prominent argument for euthanising people with a terminal illness on this basis is the following: The problem with waiting. This argument has the same basic structure as the previous one.
It is based on the idea that if a person with a terminal illness is unable to make medical decisions, he should be given the option of being euthanised to ensure that he receives the best possible medical care. There are also many variations on this key theme. For example, people with disabilities can be euthanised if they are no longer able to make medical decisions, or they can be euthanised if they become too ill to manage their medical care themselves. There are certainly strong arguments for the right of people with terminal illnesses to make end-of-life decisions. But euthanasia based on loss of autonomy is a much weaker argument.
The problem with waiting
There are two problems with the argument that euthanising people with a terminal illness is justified because they will suffer unbearably when they lose the ability to make their own medical decisions. First, it is not clear that this suffering is worse than any suffering a person with a terminal illness might experience if they are not given the option to be euthanised. Second, even if we accept the proposition that this kind of suffering is worse, the question remains whether allowing this option will result in more people dying sooner than later.
Euthanasia is often discussed as if it were one concept. The truth is that euthanasia has many different meanings, and there is little agreement on the use of the term. Some people think euthanasia involves taking the life of another person. Some think it should only be possible in extreme circumstances. Some think it should only be allowed if the dying person asks for it. Others think euthanasia should be available to people with an illness or disability. The debate on euthanasia is important for many reasons. The most important reason, however, is that euthanasia is not a good solution to the problem of suffering. Lethal medicine is a slippery slope. If medical practice becomes more focused on alleviating human suffering, it is likely to lead to fewer deaths.
Related articles: Euthanasia Drugs: What To Make Of Drugs For Euthanasia?