Essay 1 on Euthanasia
The subject of euthanasia, passive or otherwise, brings up controversial feelings. Passive euthanasia, or the letting nature take its course approach with no extraordinary measures taken to preserve life, is commonly accepted with minimal outrage. Generally, only extremists take a stance against this practice. Active euthanasia however strikes a chord within people that put us at odds not only with each other but within ourselves as well. It is important to understand that active euthanasia in this essay is characterized by the intentional act of ending your own or someone else’s life when terminal illness presents itself. I myself believe that the practice of active euthanasia should be made available but there is much work to be done on defining when it is appropriate. J. Gay-Williams spoke against active euthanasia in his article titled “The Wrongfulness of Euthanasia”.
The title alone leaves little guesswork as far as what his beliefs are. He claims an understanding of why we lean towards more acceptance of this practice but remains convinced that our beliefs are misplaced for three very distinct, compelling yet simple reasons. In my essay, I will discuss and critique his first two lines of logic; 1) the argument from nature and 2) the argument from self-interest. Gay-Williams first argument is that active euthanasia flies in the face of human nature itself. All animals, human or otherwise, were created with a will to survive. There is even a particular fight or flight mechanism that drives us to rise to the occasion of a challenge or to evade and protect one’s self. Even down to the core of biological processes, our bodies, without reason or logic, know to take measures to preserve and continue. As illustrated in the example posed by Gay-Williams, when you cut yourself, your body knows to elicit a response that generates immediate healing measures to preserve life. (Gay-Williams, pg. 717) Beyond physical considerations are the religious views held by so many and with good cause. It is the belief of those who hold religious views that God is in charge of our destiny and we should not stand in His way. This is a comforting thought in that much of the stress and burden of decision making with regards to our health is out of our control. We do not have to worry about should we consider something as strong as euthanasia when we have just been diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer, God will guide us and His divine path will prevail.
What about those that do not subscribe to these theistic views? His appeal that to end a life before nature or illness has a chance depletes ones dignity should cover those not subscribing to a religious perspective. Gay-Williams holds that dignity is in surviving and fighting for life. These are beautifully simple arguments that at first glance, one might say that he’s right without pause for review, but for the sake of thoroughness, let’s review. The very first argument posed was that our very nature by design is this fight or flight response. What if part of the flight aspect of this response is to acknowledge that our body and our mind might be about to endure the most ruthless of ends and there is nothing we can do to stop it? By comparison, the truck we jump out of the way of is that illness and our action of jumping out of the way could be the action of ending our life. (Gay-Williams, pg. 717) It is also worth mentioning that animals too were created with this mechanism but the difference is that higher thought process that humans have. We can interpret and rationalize when enough is enough for our own selves. Even in the animal kingdom, there are situations where animals “euthanize” their young due to imperfections that cannot be fixed. Biologically, we do have responses within our bodies that take charge when say you cut your finger. That is not indicative of a responsibility to exist in the face of great pain and inevitable death. The body also destroys itself through autoimmune disorders; this does not fit into that neat package of auto-preservation.
Maybe that is the will of the God mentioned to have ultimate authority over our death. The religious perspective did state that we should hold life sacred and never to take it without just and compelling cause. (Gay-Williams, pg. 717) What could be more just and compelling than a peaceful and less painful death? Is dignity truly in pain? I cannot think of a more undignified feeling than languishing away when a quick and simple way to end my suffering is available. How about his argument from self-interest? Gay-Williams contends that the field of medicine while light years ahead of where it used to be, still makes mistakes in both the diagnoses and prognoses of patients. I think each of us can relate an experience where we went to the doctor because of a general ailment and they rifle through a battery of tests going from one conclusion to the next. Along the way, those same doctors thought they had it figured out and soon discovered that they were wrong. Even the flu, your doctor tells you ten to fifteen days yet three weeks later, you regret not having stock in Kleenex and the makers of Pepto-Bismol. And what about those cases of the miraculous recovery? We have a family friend who was diagnosed with stage three pancreatic cancer. It is commonly accepted that when you find out you have this particular kind of cancer, your fate is sealed. Well, he did experience the miracle that each ill person hopes for. He is cancer free and has been so for 6 years. What would happen if he had decided that with a prognosis of certain death, he wanted to end his life?
This is what I believe Gay-Williams was arguing for when he stated that it is against self-interest to participate in active euthanasia. His final point within this argument was that when you have the easy way out, you might lean more towards that direction rather than putting your effort into fighting for your life. A crude but simplistic illustration of that would be open book tests. How hard do we really study when we can have the answers right in front of us at test time? All of these points demonstrate how our self-interest is in peril when we choose to consider active euthanasia. Again though, has consideration been given to the rebuttals to those points? Medicine isn’t exactly fool-proof, but most can contend that the situations that active euthanasia would most be considered are in fact hopeless. Those patients suffering from Alzheimer’s know that they are going to die from it and it will more than likely be a long path filled with losses both emotionally and physically. There are even intermittent moments of clarity where these patients realize what is going on and know what they will soon never get back. I contend that it is not in the self-interest of someone to put themselves in a situation where enduring a disease that is terminal and painful just for the sake of biologically living.
The hope for the miracle is a very distant hope in most cases of terminal illness. By definition, a miracle is an outcome that flies in the face of nature. The two points regarding the possibility of a miracle and the loss of a will to fight seem to rebut his previous argument that it is in our nature to fight. I don’t believe that people, in most scenarios, would give up the chance to live when faced with a terminal illness. He seems to contradict himself in this point. I believe that Gay-Williams had simple points to present and that each on their own had some merit to consider. They were easy to understand, not particularly wrong, but also not thought out as a whole.
I’m on the fence about whether we as a society are to the point where we should make active euthanasia available as a practice. I do support the option itself but feel more clarification is needed as to when it is appropriate. I believe this is due to the arguments such as those presented by Gay-Williams. Yes, there is a nature component to survival that needs to be addressed but that door swings both ways. Our self-interests coincide with our nature. Humans cannot readily separate what is their natural thought and belief with their self-interests. Our thought processes are such that self-interest is our nature. The beliefs of Gay-Williams are strong but not bullet-proof making it too easy to say that neither “side” of the argument has won.