Euthanasia is the purposeful ending of the life of a person in the belief that it will alleviate pain and suffering. Classification of euthanasia includes active and passive euthanasia and voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Somehow, euthanasia is comparable to “assisted suicide”. For purposes of analysis, this discussion will focus on passive and active euthanasia and the ethical issues raised by each type. The laws regarding euthanasia in the state of Texas with particular emphasis on the Terry Schiavo case in Florida will also form part of the analysis in this discussion.
Passive euthanasia involves the withdrawal of medical help from a patient, with the intention of causing death (Tulloch, 2005, p. 33). The classic manifestation of passive euthanasia in the US is through enforcement of the “do not resuscitate order” where physicians do not attempt to revive a patient under sudden life interruption conditions such as heart attack. It may also include switching off life support machines, disconnection of the feeding tubes and failure to give life extending drugs.
Active euthanasia on the other hand, involves taking specific measures to cause a patient’s death. It may involve lethal injection, administration of overdose and the use of sleeping pills (Tulloch, 2005, p. 33).
In passive euthanasia, there is no active killing of a person rather, failure to save his/her life. The moral and ethical issues on both forms of euthanasia have been the subject of research and debate among professionals for a long time.
The universal medical practitioner’s code of ethics demands that they protect life and that they should never engage in any act that leads to the purposeful end of life of a person. However, the philosophical and legal approaches to death offer some reprieve for practitioners who deem it necessary to carry out any form euthanasia as discussed above. Even so, there is little consensus on the moral difference between killing and letting a person die. Some people argue that it is acceptable to withhold vital life-sustaining measures, effectively enhancing death of a person, while it is not acceptable deliberately to kill a person. However, stopping treatment and deciding not to carry out a particular life saving practice, are both deliberate acts which make euthanasia to qualify as homicide.
The acts and omissions idea in ethics can perhaps help in resolving the ethical issues surrounding euthanasia (Huxtable, 2007, p. 56). According to the idea, carrying out an action and, omitting to carry out an action are two very different positions that somehow achieve the same result. This stems from the fact that there is a difference between an active intervention and omission of action of an agent bringing about the same result.
Passive euthanasia is common in the US and is mostly carried through withholding of foods and fluids. In the state of Texas, the passage of the Texas Futile Care Law in 1999 gave physicians and hospitals the power to end life supporting measures on patients with terminal illness if in their opinion, the measures are futile and inappropriate (Longo, 2010, p. 415). The Advanced Directives Act in Texas however is the most discussed euthanasia law in the state. Controversy stems from the tragic case of Terri Schiavo whose death through starvation was as result of a similar Florida law. Under the act, a patient has up to ten days during which he/she must receive life-sustaining treatment elsewhere in case doctors and caregivers decide to halt giving the patient treatment to save his/her life.
Prior to the passage of Texas Advanced Directives Act in 1999, Texas legislature had proposed a bill that would have absolved doctors and other medical practitioners of any wrongdoing in case they denied life saving treatment to a patient requesting such treatment (Longo, 2010, p. 418). Doctors would have been free of any culpability if they thought the treatment requested by the patient would lead to harm or death. Technically, this would have legalized involuntary euthanasia in Texas. The Texas Advanced Directives Act in 1999 therefore is a better version of the above law by virtue of its ten-day window period to patients.
Resolution and consensus on the issues surrounding euthanasia are unlikely. Both passive and active euthanasia are two sides of the same coin. Complications further arise given the various interested parties including religion, philosophy, medicine, psychology and sociology. While sanctity of human life must never be compromised, it is easy to agree in some situations that no matter what, both active and passive euthanasia may prove useful. Few societies including American condone suicide. However, passive euthanasia which is very prevalent in the US is comparable to physician “assisted” suicide. Furthermore, the two are not very differentiated from the conventional suicide. It will be therefore hypocritical to demonize suicide while condoning the former two. It is possible that malice can creep into any legal enforcement of euthanasia, but, that should never deter all stakeholders from formulating mechanisms that will enable people to exercise their right to die. Like all other universal human rights, people should freely exercise their right to die in whatever way they deem fit.
- Huxtable, R. (2007). Euthanasia, ethics and the law: from conflict to compromise. New York: Routledge-Cavendish.
- Longo, L.D. (2010). Harrison’s Hematology and Oncology. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Tulloch, G. (2005). Euthanasia, choice and death. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.