Euthanasia

Brain Pollard
Reproduced with Permission

Even though euthanasia is a common topic for general discussion, its real nature and significance are complex and, not surprisingly, it is therefore often misunderstood. A popular view is that it would be simple to introduce a law for change, if only there were the will. It is also often claimed that most people in the community support the idea, and that it is chiefly due to the opposition of those who hold and rely on their religious beliefs that it has not already been enacted. In this paper, no arguments will be used that depend on religious adherence. It will be shown that legalised euthanasia would be a denial of justice and would be highly dangerous to many others in the community who did not want their lives taken.

Euthanasia has moral, social, human rights, medical and legal implications, all of which will be addressed, though not exhaustively, in these papers. First, since the word means different things to different people, the definitions provided here are those commonly used in the international literature and contain all its elements.

Definitions.

Euthanasia is the intentional taking of the life of another person, by act or omission, for compassionate motives. It is

Assisted suicide occurs when one person supplies the means of self-killing to another, with the intention that they will be used for that purpose.

Euthanasia is a form of homicide -- even if legalised, it would be legalised homicide. Intention is central to the concept. There is no euthanasia unless the death is intentionally caused by what was done or not done. Thus, some medical actions that are often labelled passive euthanasia are no form of euthanasia, since the intention to take life is lacking. These acts include not commencing treatment that would not provide a benefit to the patient, withdrawing treatment that has been shown to be ineffective, too burdensome or is unwanted, and the giving of high doses of pain-killers that may endanger life, when they have been shown to be necessary. All those are part of good medical practice, endorsed by law, when they are properly carried out.

Though it is not always easy to make the distinction between the intended consequences of an act and those that are foreseen but not intended, and some people may then think there is no distinction, it is nonetheless real, and important to make it. It provides the ethical justification for some of the necessary actions of doctors in certain complex situations near the end of life, for example, when appropriately removing medical treatment that has been shown to be useless. When continuing medical treatment would be futile, that is without any known predictable benefit, it is both legal and ethical to withhold it or remove it with the intention of ceasing the needless prolongation of inevitable dying, even though death may be foreseen as a consequence. (In passing, it can be mentioned that terminally-ill patients are rarely attached to life-support systems, such as ventilators. The issue of the removal of life-support is separate from euthanasia).

It is sometimes said that intention cannot be tested, but there is a simple test to apply to clarify the matter of intent when dealing with euthanasia . Ask the question "What would then be done if the patient did not die?" If treatment was withdrawn and the patient didn't die, he or she would then receive all necessary care until eventual natural death. If a lethal injection didn't work, further doses would be given until the patient died. One risks death and the other seeks it.

Some object to the word "killing" as applied to euthanasia as "emotive", but it is simply descriptive of what is being proposed, that is, "to take the life of". Nobody becomes emotionally upset when they read that "Mr So and So was killed yesterday when hit by a speeding car". The term "mercy killing" is accurate and inoffensive. On the other hand, while euthanasia is technically the crime of murder, this word may be offensive because its motive is usually not malicious, but compassionate.

Morality.

This word is used here in its secular sense of things that are right or wrong, and has no particular relevance to any religious doctrine. The whole of the criminal law is devoted to things that are matters of wrongdoing, accepted by Australians and every world community. Since euthanasia is the taking of innocent life, innocent referring to those who pose no present or future threat to others, it is above all a moral issue, and to ignore this distorts the discussion from the outset.

But many in society say they have become unhappy with notions of objective morality as a standard to which all are required to conform, while at the same time they cheerfully accept standards in other walks of life, since standards represent all that stands between order and chaos. There must be some good reason why every nation in the world in recent centuries has regarded taking the life of an innocent as the greatest crime, deserving of the greatest penalty, and that it has been universally realised that, in order to protect everyone equally in the community, especially the weakest, there are no exceptions to this rule. In fact, although the law does not attempt to define human values, it implicitly accepts that innocent human life has the highest possible value.

If, as a society, we cannot agree that it is wrong to take innocent life, that natural rights need respect and protection, and that the frailties of mind and body imposed by serious illness render the sick peculiarly vulnerable to manipulation by others who may resent them for social reasons, on what can we certainly agree? If we cannot agree on the morality of anything, then the law can be dispensed with, except in so far as it represents self-interest or mob rule.

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