Euthanasia is generally regarded as either assisted suicide or manslaughter. In most civilized countries, both are illegal. Whether the former is ethical or not is always bound to remain a point of conjecture. A number of arguments could be mounted to support the negative. Religious beliefs may cause some to infer that we do not have the right to terminate a life. Philosophical questions come into play; what is life anyway? When does it begin? When does it end?
Life could arguably be defined and measured according to the quality of existence. The old adage: ‘where there is life there is hope’ is small consolation to a grieving family. A daily vigil beside a motionless body held in limbo by a machine is a common scene of vain hope and unyielding despair. Similarly, if the will to live has eroded, who are we to enforce ours on a dead spirit?
For a practitioner whose sole purpose to preserve life is dictated by the Hippocratic oath taken with more solemnity than a marriage vow, upon entering his or her profession, the choices are stark. Assist a patient to die or make a judgement which could surpass the professional relationship between doctor and patient. In fact, vow no 5 decrees that ‘…..I will not withdraw from my patients in their time of need…’ Nobody should be denied the right to a dignified end. But beyond the termination, a court inquiry follows during which the doctor must justify the action to a magistrate and relive the trauma at least one more time. How ironic that a professional person whose life is dedicated to caring for other human beings has to compromise their very career in order to undertake the kindest deed of all, that of permanently relieving the suffering. A poor but real analogy can be drawn from the fact that nobody raises a legal eyebrow when thousands of man’s best friends’ are put down every day out of the kindness of our hearts, or when a horse which has become lame during a race is unceremoniously destroyed in the track stable.
Self-administration, otherwise called suicide can hardly be refuted on ethical or moral grounds. The biggest problem here is that when the patient is incapable of making that decision or beyond the capability of applying it a thin line is drawn between assisted suicide (or mercy killing) and manslaughter, which carries a prison sentence. One alternative is that a dying patient is artificially supported by a machine for months while a court decides whether or not to release them from their hell on earth. Ironically, to most of the participants in that legal charade, the patient is a total stranger. How ethical is that?
Life is measured by our achievements and relationships. Everybody would like to be remembered for the quality of their existence. The legacy of an unnecessarily prolonged illness is a sad memory for family members left behind. The recollection of helplessness during that period of deterioration weighs far more heavily than the eventual loss. If it is a dying wish that the plug should be pulled, then nobody has the right to deny it nor question the ethics of it.