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In Our Society Today
Euthanasia is a controversial subject,
not only because there are many different moral dilemmas associated with
it, but also in what constitutes its definition. At the extreme ends of
disagreement, advocates say euthanasia (which in Greek means “easy death”)
is a good, or merciful, death. Opponents of euthanasia say it is a fancy
word for murder.
Between the two extremes, there are various
positions for and against euthanasia. One position opposes cases of “active”
euthanasia, where an active, or overt, effort is made to bring about death,
such as in administering a lethal injection, but accept “passive” euthanasia,
which is generally described as declining to initiate extraordinary or
even ordinary medical treatment, as moral.
Another position advocates that passive
euthanasia is acceptable when the person to die has consented. Other positions
include situations where a terminally ill patient is unable to consent
as justifiable, because it resolves a hopeless situation. Conversely, even
with this gradation, some opponents to euthanasia believe that voluntary,
passive euthanasia is the same as suicide; involuntary euthanasia is considered
to be murder.
Because euthanasia poses classic dilemmas
as to its morality, it is not surprising that many issues arise in the
legal and medical arenas. In law, the resolution of a particular case cannot
always be applied to resolve another. In the medical realm, interpretation
of medical doctrine concerning treatment of terminally-ill patients can
result in entirely different applications.
In two relatively recent cases, the Supreme
Court had to decide the future of patients that were considered to be in
chronically persistent vegetative states. The courts had to decide whether
to continue with the prevailing treatment, as advocated by the medical
community, or discontinue treatment at the request of the patients’ guardians.
The courts considered several factors in making a determination: What are
the state’s interests in terms of human life? When does the patient’s right
to refuse treatment override the state’s interest? What does the right
to refuse treatment entail, and is it included in the patient’s right to
privacy? Do a patient’s guardians have the right to refuse treatment on
behalf of a patient? What constitutes ordinary and extraordinary medical
The court indicated that a patient’s right
to refuse treatment was an extension of the constitutionally-derived “right
to privacy” and, more importantly, permitted the assignment of those rights
to Quinlan’s guardians.