Each human being has a variety of human rights. The United Nations composed a list of basic human rights to which they believe all members of the human family should be entitled to. They have created a document called The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has proclaimed it as a common standard of achievement for all peoples of all nations. In this document, Article 5 states that nobody should be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment or be subjected to torture.
(United Nations, 1948).
Amongst all the other choices humans are free to make, why should dying with dignity not be a basic human right. Suicide sadly happens daily; however, it becomes an issue when someone with a terminal illness or serious incapacitation due to illness or accident wishes to die with dignity.
If someone is in severe chronic debilitating pain or has lost their ability to function in a dignifying way, they should have the right to euthanasia, if they have a living will which clearly, beyond reasonable doubt expresses their wishes clearly, if that right is denied is it not in fact torturing said human being?
There are different types of euthanasia, the first type is passive euthanasia.
Passive euthanasia happens when death is caused by either withholding or withdrawing treatment. The patients’ life is not taken directly, they are just allowed to die. Withdrawing treatment refers to switching off a machine that is keeping a person alive so that they die of their disease.
This typically happens to coma patients, when doctors believe keeping the patient on life support is futile, and lets the family decide whether they would like to continue treatment.
Withholding treatment, on the other hand, happens when death is caused by an act, for example when a doctor does not do a surgery that will extend life for a short time (BBC UK). Gedge, Giacomini, and Cook have concluded that there is no ethical difference between withholding and withdrawing treatment. According to their journal article, doctors typically withhold care, by not giving patients information about treatments, they feel would be futile.
In decisions relating to withdrawal of life support however, doctors secure consent from family members and must abide by their decision, even if continued treatment is futile. (Gedge, Giacomini, & Cook, 2007) Passive euthanasia happens all the time, through doctors’ decisions to not inform patients of futile treatments, families choosing to withdraw treatment, such as switching off life support systems, and even patients who refuse treatment due to a variety of beliefs, values and sometimes even religious views.
Article 3 of the United Nations’ Declaration of human rights states that everyone has the right to life (United Nations, 1948), does a doctor, deciding to withhold information on treatment options, or refusing to do a surgery that is too risky, or a person deciding to not to be treated for an illness, not take away from the right to life? It most certainly does, it almost seems normal for doctors to make these decisions, as well as families, making end of life decisions, which either fulfill the patients’ wishes or the wishes of the family. If euthanasia decisions are already being made for us surely, we should be allowed to make other euthanasia-related decisions for ourselves.
It is morally unsatisfactory to make a distinction between active and passive euthanasia. In passive euthanasia, one does not actively kill the patient, yet is aware of the fact that the patient will die as a result of withholding or withdrawing treatment. Active euthanasia is when a person directly or deliberately causes the death of a patient. This can happen in various forms and can, for example, be when a patient gets given an overdose of pills. There are of course a variety of concerns when it comes to active euthanasia.
There are a lot of things to be considered and is by no means a decision that should be taken lightly by any patient. Victorian firefighter Troy Thornton died in a Swiss euthanasia clinic after being unable to legally be euthanized in his home country, Australia. Thornton had multiple system atrophy (MSA), which is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder, which affects both the autonomic nervous system as well as movement. There are a variety of symptoms, and a patient progressively loses motor functions until eventually they are confined to bed. Only some of the symptoms of MSA can be treated, for example, motor function can be improved with levodopa, but the benefit does not last as the disease progresses, currently there are no drugs that can slow the progression of the disease or cure the disease (NIH National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, n.d.).
Under Victorian law, this was not considered being a terminal illness, even though he would have eventually ended up as a vegetable. As a result, Thornton and his mom had no other choice but to have it done in Switzerland, making use of a GoFund me campaign to raise enough funds for the traveling and other costs involved (Precel, 2019). All over the world, there are numerous patients wanting to be euthanized, had Thornton have this opportunity, the financial burden on his family would have been much less, they would not have had to resort to GoFund me campaigns, and the money people donated, they could have donated to other more needed avenues. Had Thornton’s family been unable to raise the money for him to go to a euthanasia clinic, he would have died a slow, torturous, undignified death.
The life expectancy for someone with MSA is between five and ten years and depends on a patient to patient basis. While a person is of sound mind and able to make their own decisions, they should be able to choose whether or not they want to be euthanized. Other concerns with regards to legalizing euthanasia include the fact that involuntary euthanasia might take place, and that this gives doctors too much power. As we have seen earlier, doctors already decide when people die, based on how they choose which treatments to administer, withdraw or withhold. There is a fear that people might use coercion and persuasion, to get patients to ask for euthanasia.
Regulating euthanasia is vital, there should be clear, set out rules, which will protect vulnerable people such as the elderly, distressed, lonely or sick who requests early death. A Living Will seems like a reasonable solution, to at least ease some fears. This is an active declaration which a patient makes which lets doctors know what to do in the event they become seriously ill and are unable to communicate or make their own choices. Most people never think of getting seriously ill, or what might happen. A living will should be done by people who are of sound mind, this document can express your wish to be euthanized, or could even specify that doctors must continue treatment until the patient is dead. A living will can cover a series of medical scenarios, such as what the patient wants to do when in a vegetative state, or coma, when they have terminal brain damage, non-terminal brain damage, they have a serious treatable disease or a serious non-treatable disease.
By creating this document when you are healthy and of sound mind, there should be no reason for doctors to want to influence healthy patients to ask for euthanasia sooner than what they would need it. People seeking to be euthanized wish to die a dignified death, they do not want to be a burden on their families or support networks when they become unable to take care of themselves and their basic needs from going to the bathroom and feeding themselves. Seeking to be euthanized should be voluntary, no person should be forced into a decision to end their life early with medical assistance.
Doctors make decisions which influence the length of our life span on a daily basis, by choosing how or how not to treat their patients. Morally, there is no difference between passive and active euthanasia, knowing that a life will end, and not doing anything about it, is just as bad as pulling the plug on a life support machine when keeping someone alive is futile. By allowing people to be euthanized, legalization can protect patients from doctors influencing or encouraging patients to be euthanized because they want to empty beds or control scarce resources. Legalization can furthermore set explicit guidelines and requirements with the help of medical professionals, including psychologists and law professionals.
Allowing people to be euthanized can ensure that they can die whilst being surrounded by their all their loved ones, a privilege that Thornton was not privy to as only his mother was able to join him on an expensive trip. People take their own lives on a daily basis, sometimes you hear of people who have been unsuccessful in their suicide attempts, living to tell the tale, but with physical or mental harm, that they now have to live with. If a terminally ill person who is in extreme pain wants to be permanently relieved of this pain, they should have the right to assistance, instead of trying themselves, messing it up and ending up worse than they were before the failed suicide attempt. If a person has a living will, which explicitly, clearly and beyond any reasonable doubt sets out a series of instructions of ways in which a doctor should or should not treat them, these wishes should be honored, both by doctors, family and a court of law if necessary.
As humans, we have a right to live and die a dignified death, without being tortured through being forced to live a life in which we have to be in incapacitating chronic pain, or unable to do anything for ourselves.