Kathleen M. Foley, author of Competent Care for the Dying Instead of Physician-Assisted Suicide,
believes doctors should develop treatments for the physical and psychological problems of dying patients
rather than helping them commit suicide. Available data suggests most physicians do not receive training
in the care of dying patients. Dying patients experience physical symptoms such as pain, psychological
problems such as anxiety and depression and existential distress (described as the experience of life without
meaning.)(1) many of the physical and psychological problems can be treated. Furthermore, legalization
of physician-assisted suicide may deter physicians from developing treatments that could enhance the dying
patient’s quality of life.
Euthanasia by definition means “a gentle and easy death”, “the good death of another” or “mercy
killing.”(2) There are two types of euthanasia currently recognized, active and passive euthanasia. Active
euthanasia is the taking of one’s own life, or being killed, for example, by lethal injection. Passive
euthanasia is taking one’s life with the assistance of another or just being allowed to die. In passive
euthanasia we simply refrain from doing anything to keep the patient alive, for example, refusing to
perform surgery, administer medication, give heart massage or use a respirator and let the patient die from
whatever illness is already present. It is important to understand the difference, because many people
believe that active euthanasia is immoral and passive euthanasia is morally all right. They believe that we
should actually never kill patients, but sometimes it is all right to let them die.
The main issue then is it morally permissible to kill or let someone die who is going to die soon anyway,
at the person’s own request, as an act of kindness?
Throughout history, many people have thought that the distinction between active and passive euthanasia
is morally important: and many of those who condemned active euthanasia raised no objection against
passive euthanasia. Even by people who believed killing to be wrong, allowing people to die by not
treating them was thought in some circumstances to be all right. Even before Christ, Socrates was quoted
as saying, ” …bodies which disease had penetrated through and through he would not have attempted to
cure…he did not want to lengthen out good-for-nothing lives.”(3) In the centuries that followed, both the
Christians and the Jews viewed allowing to die in circumstances of hopeless suffering, morally permissible.
It was killing that they adamantly opposed.
The Pope, stating the position of the Catholic Church, said “it is acceptable to allow the patient who is
virtually already dead to pass away in peace.”(4) In a statement published in 1982, the American Medical
Association echoes the feeling of the Catholic Church saying, ” we remain firm on our stand against mercy
killing, but allowing patients to die (in some circumstances) is all right.”(5) So it seems, there is
widespread agreement that passive euthanasia is morally all right (in at least some cases), but active
euthanasia is much more controversial.
In essence what we seek is whether euthanasia active or passive is moral, or whether it is immoral. To
discover the truth we must examine the arguments or reasons that are given for or against it. If the
arguments in favor of euthanasia are persuasive and the arguments against
it can be rejected, then it is morally acceptable. And likewise, if after careful analysis we find a strong
case against euthanasia, we would have to conclude it to be immoral. I think this is true not only of
euthanasia, but of any moral issue.
The single most powerful argument in support of euthanasia is the argument of mercy. The main idea of
this argument is simple. Terminal patients sometimes suffer pain far beyond our comprehension. This
suffering can be so terrible that we cringe at the descriptions of such agony. The argument for mercy says:
Euthanasia is justified because it puts an end to that. It is not important to give gory details of the suffering
of the terminally ill, but it is important to keep these visions vividly imprinted in our minds so we can
appreciate the full force of the argument for mercy. If a person prefers and even begs for death as the only
alternative to lingering on in this kind of torment, only to die anyway after a while, then surely it is not
immoral to help this person die sooner. As Stewart Alsop (a respected journalist) stated prior to his death
from a rare