This essay examines the central question of whether it is alright to allow a terminally ill person to take his or her own life or should the person be denied such a choice and continue suffering for a prolonged duration till death.
The essay first explains the Judeo-Christian objections to the concept of assisted suicides and explains why such religious arguments are invalid.
The essay then looks at the moral and ethical objections against assisted suicide and points at the flaws in the argument.
The issue of legality is then examined to agree that there are legal issues involved which have been challenged in the courts. That a precedent allowing assisted suicides exists in one state in the US makes it possible for other states to follow suit.
Medico-legal problems and socio-political problems are examined next.
The essay concludes by stating that while moral, ethical, and religious objections are invalid, there are many medico-legal issues and issues of realpolitik that need to be resolved before assisted suicides can be made legal and the author of this essay supports such an initiative.
Assisted suicide is defined as “suicide committed by someone with assistance from another person; especially physician-assisted suicide” (Merriam-Webster). Ever since the Netherlands gave legal sanctions for some forms of assisted suicide in 1984 (Paterson, p. 1), the issue has generated intense controversy on moral, ethical, religious, legal, and practical grounds. This essay examines the central question of whether it is alright to allow a terminally ill person to take his or her own life or should the person be denied such a choice and continue suffering for a prolonged duration till death.
Judeo-Christian religious beliefs consider suicide a sin and that the continuance or the cessation of human life is entirely dependant on God’s will. Does that mean that ‘God’s will’ requires a hopelessly ill person, in great pain to continue to suffer an existence worse than death when deliverance from such a fate is possible? By that logic even prolonging life by using modern medicines and surgical procedures is against God’s will as a naturally occurring disease would have cut short the life of a person prematurely (Paterson 16). Does that mean humans should stop taking medicines or stop undergoing life-saving surgical procedures? Faith in God and religion is an individualistic choice. In pluralistic, secular democratic nations, to attribute the Judeo-Christian belief set to the entire population would be a negation of western democratic principles. If that were the case, then what about the rights to liberty and privacy of an individual, as enshrined in the Constitution? What if the person involved does not subscribe to religious beliefs, is a rationalist, atheist, or follows traditions where voluntary suicides under certain circumstances are considered as an honor?
Moralists argue that it is immoral to kill oneself and that anyone who assists in this ‘self-murder’ is also a murderer. Statute books have outlawed assisted suicides the world over yet the very same states, by law, allow authorities to kill on behalf of the state. By any stretch of logic, how is capital punishment any less immoral than an assisted suicide? Thus not only does the argument against assisted suicide not hold up from the moralist and ethical point of view, but it also does not stand up to the logical rationality of the issue.
Undoubtedly, there are legal reasons to be cautious in allowing assisted suicides. Legally speaking, the Constitution allows the right to life, liberty, and privacy but does not specifically state that the citizens have a right to die. Allowing assisted suicides would require a constitutional amendment, or if not, at least a law to be passed to make assisted suicides legal. However, there have been court judgments that have held that the US Supreme court law prohibiting assisted suicide in the state of “Washington was unconstitutional as applied to terminally ill competent adults” (Keown, p. 194). On the flip side, there is a danger of the person opting for assisted suicide being temporarily imbalanced, having suicidal tendencies, being under psychological manipulations by a third party, or under the influence of narcotics. There is also the danger of an uninsured poor person opting for assisted suicide for lack of health insurance. However, if the State of Oregon can promulgate a Death with Dignity Act (McDougall, Gorman, and Roberts, p. 41) there is no reason why the other states in the US cannot follow suit. Assisted suicide can be “safe, legal and rare” (Kopelman and de Vile, p. 189) if the correct regulations and proper legal framework are in place.
There are also compelling socio-political reasons for not allowing assisted suicides. Laws are framed for ensuring the common good of the people of a country. Laws also reflect the moral and social values of society. So, in a predominantly Catholic country, if permission to allow assisted suicides is going to cause law and order problems or political instability, then the decision to change such laws requires careful consideration. Here, it becomes the question of realpolitik and pragmatism as to the ‘cost-benefit of allowing the rights of the few against the wellbeing of the majority.
Assisted suicide, as the term suggests, is carried out by the person in full control over his or her faculties, but with the help of another person, usually a trained physician. It differs from Euthanasia, which may involve mercy killing by another person which could be involuntary (McDougall, Gorman and Roberts, p. 2).
Since the person is fully conscious of the gravity of the decision taken by him or her, under any precept of natural law, the person is acting within the bounds of rationality. After all, would it not be a rational decision to end pain and suffering when there is no possible cure and die with dignity?
Thus it can be concluded that while the question of assisted suicide may offend the moralists, and the religiously inclined, the arguments against allowing its legal sanction rests on very thin grounds which do not subscribe to any realms of rationality or logic save the question of medico-legalities and realpolitik. Hence in the opinion of the author of this essay, assisted suicide must be made legal.
- Keown, John. Euthanasia, Ethics, and Public Policy: An Arguement Against Legislation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Kopelman, Loretta M and Kenneth A de Vile. Physician – Assisted Suicide. NY: Springer, 2001.
- McDougall, Jennifer Fecio, Martha Gorman and Carolyn S Roberts. Euthanasia: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2007.
- Merriam-Webster. “Assisted Suicide.” 2009. Paterson, Craig. Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2008.