Euthanasia is the practice of mercifully ending a person’s life in order to release the person from an incurable disease, intolerable suffering, or undignified death. The word euthanasia derives from the Greek for “good death” and originally referred to intentional mercy killing. When medical advances made prolonging the lives of dying or comatose patients possible, the term euthanasia was also applied to a lack of action to prevent death. There are three practices that are involved with Euthanasia. The first one is voluntary (or active) euthanasia, where the person asks to be killed. This involves painlessly putting individuals to death for merciful reasons, as when a doctor administers a lethal dose of medication to a patient.
The second practice that is involved with Euthanasia is involuntary. This concerns the killing of persons who cannot express their wishes, because of immaturity (such as a newborn infant), mental retardation, or coma. Here is it decided by others that that person would be better off dead. The third practice is passive euthanasia, where the patient is killed by withdrawing some kind of support and letting nature takes its course. For example, this would include removing life support or stopping medical procedures. It also includes not delivering CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) and allowing a person, whose heart has stopped, to die. Many people fail to differentiate between euthanasia and assisted suicide. In euthanasia, one person does something that directly kills another. For example, a doctor gives a lethal injection to a patient.
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In assisted suicide, a non-suicidal person knowingly and intentionally provides the means or acts in some way to help a suicidal person kill himself or herself. For example, a doctor writes a prescription for poison, or someone hooks up a device and then instructs the suicidal person how to use it to kill him or herself. Euthanasia has been accepted in some forms by various groups or societies throughout history. In ancient Greece and Rome helping others die or putting them to death was considered permissible in some situations. Voluntary euthanasia for the elderly was an approved custom in several ancient societies also. However, as Christianity developed and grew powerful in the West, euthanasia became morally and ethically abhorrent and was viewed as a violation of God’s gift of life. Today most branches of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam condemn active euthanasia, although some permit restricted forms of passive euthanasia.
The first organizations to promote the legalization of voluntary euthanasia in the United States and Great Britain formed in the 1930s. For several decades these organizations remained small and had little impact. However, in the late 1970s, the pro-euthanasia movement gained significant momentum after a highly publicized incident in the United States. In 1975 a 21-year-old woman named Karen Ann Quinlan suffered a respiratory arrest that resulted in severe and irreversible brain damage and left her in a coma. Several months later, after doctors informed them that their daughter’s recovery was extremely unlikely, Quinlan’s parents requested that artificial means of life support be removed. The hospital refused.
As laws have evolved from their traditional religious underpinnings, certain forms of euthanasia have been legally accepted. In general, laws attempted to draw a line between passive euthanasia (generally allowing a person to die) and active euthanasia (generally associated with killing a person). While laws commonly permit passive euthanasia, active euthanasia is typically prohibited. The issue of euthanasia raises ethical questions for physicians and other health-care providers. The ethical code of physicians in the United States has long been based in part on the Hippocratic Oath, which requires physicians to do no harm. However, medical ethics are refined over time as definitions of harm change. Prior to the 1970s, the right of patients to refuse life-sustaining treatment (passive euthanasia) was controversial. As a result of various court cases, this right is nearly universally acknowledged today, even among conservative bioethics.
The controversy over active euthanasia remains intense, in part because of opposition from religious groups and many members of the legal and medical professions. Opponents of voluntary active euthanasia emphasize that health-care providers have professional obligations that prohibit killing. These opponents maintain that active euthanasia is inconsistent with the roles of nursing, caregiving, and healing. Opponents also argue that permitting physicians to engage in active euthanasia creates intolerable risks of abuse and misuse of the power over life and death. They acknowledge that particular instances of active euthanasia may sometimes be morally justified. However, opponents argue that sanctioning the practice of killing would cause more harm than benefit. Too powerful schools of thought are presented in this paper and I can certainly empathize with both sides. It is hard for me, however, to take a stand and reasonably justify either position. Justification can not be easily reached without carefully considering and walking in the shoes of the people presented in this paper.