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Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide (PAS)

The verbal battle

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The verbal battle over euthanasia:

Many hotly debated social questions revolve around individual choice. Current conflicts exist over: 

bullet Giving same-sex couples a choice of whether or not to marry

bullet Allowing women the freedom to choose to have an abortion, if they consider that to the be least worst option;
 
bullet Giving people access to assistance in hastening dying. 

Discussions about these questions often get mired in a mountain of emotional accusations. With physician assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia, charges include that the "most vulnerable" of humans are "besieged by euthanasia practitioners" and that families must fight "anti-life assaults on their loved ones" which "threaten the lives of those who are medically vulnerable".

In reality, the basic question, posed by the euthanasia/assisted suicide laws in a few states, is: should a person:

bullet Who is terminally ill, and

bullet Who feels that their life is not worth living because of intractable pain, and/or loss of dignity, and/or loss of capability and

bullet Who repeatedly and actively asks for help in committing suicide and

bullet Who is of sound mind and not suffering from depression

be allowed to request and receive assistance in dying?

Euthanasia is not about:

bullet Whether a person should be free to ask a physician for assistance in dying. A patient is already free to ask any question of their doctor.
 
bullet Whether a physician should take the initiative to kill a patient. The dying person must be the person to take the initiative.
 
bullet Whether a person should be allowed to commit suicide. In most jurisdictions, suicide is a legal act, and has been so for decades.
 
bullet Whether an otherwise healthy person who is going through a period of depression should be given help in committing suicide. Doctors would be prohibited from giving such assistance under any proposed or existing legislation. Instead, their depression would be treated.
 
bullet Whether a person's family should be allowed to initiate euthanasia; a request for aid in dying would have to come from the terminally ill person.
 
bullet Whether death squads should periodically visit hospitals and nursing homes in order to cull out people who are no longer contributing to society, and murder them. This is a fear-based red herring created to scare people.
 
bullet Whether everyone should select physician assisted suicide (PAS). Even if it were generally available, only a small percentage of people would request it, and an even smaller percentage would actually go through with the act.

Ultimately, euthanasia is a question of choice: whether to empower people to have control over their own bodies. As of 2010, unless a person lives in Colombia, Japan, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Albania or Thailand, or in the U.S. states of Montana, Oregon, or Washington, the only lawful option is to remain alive, sometimes in intractable pain, until their body finally collapses.

The main opposition comes from some:

bullet Conservative religious groups. They are often the same organizations which oppose access to abortion, same-sex marriage, equal rights for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender persons and transsexuals (LGBT), etc.
 
bullet Medical associations whose members are dedicated to saving and extending life, and feel uncomfortable helping people end their lives.
 
bullet Groups concerned with disabilities, who fear that euthanasia is the first step towards a society that will kill disabled people against their will.

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Lack of accuracy by groups who promote and oppose PAS:

Groups that promote access to assisted suicide seem publicize cases where people have a terminal illness, are in intractable pain, and are anxious to end their life. Although such cases certainly do exist, they are in small minority. Many dying patients who are in serious pain have adequate access to pain-controlling medication. Most of those who ask for assistance in dying appear to be concerned with quality of life or dignity issues.

Unfortunately, groups on all sides have resorted to scare tactics. They often do not tackle the basic issue directly, but create false scenarios to alarm the public. These methods may work on the short term, but will eventually alienate the public and destroy the credibility of the groups:

bullet Some groups in the pro-choice faction have described horrendous cases of terminally ill individuals, suffering terribly, in intractable pain, even though such cases are not the norm.
 
bullet Some groups in the pro-life faction have been implying that "physician initiated murder" is the topic being debated, not PAS. They have been raising the specter that the Oregon law would permit roving gangs of bureaucrats to visit nursing homes and decide which residents deserve to live and which to die; then they will murder all of the residents who they consider to be not worthy of life. 
 
bullet Even Focus on the Family, a fundamentalist Christian group who has a reasonably good record of accuracy on social questions, appears to have misrepresented the question under debate. In an end-of-the-year review for 1997, their founder and president, Dr. Dobson, wrote: "By a sizable margin of 60-40 percent, Oregnonians [sic] have authorized their doctors to administer lethal doses of poison to willing patients...For the moment, if you are elderly and ill, Oregon is the last place you should want to be." 1 Dr. Dobson seems to have implied that elderly, ill residents of Oregon are at risk of being murdered against their will.
 
bullet

Dr. Abraham Halpern, an ex-president of the American Association of Psychiatry and the Law, and Dr. Alfred Freedman, ex-president of the American Psychiatric Association, wrote an article in the New York Times, stating that "Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act...should be repealed. It greases the slippery slope and will surely result in undignified and unmerciful killings." 2 The implication is that if we allow some terminally ill patients to die that eventually laws will be created to allow the state to kill anyone that it deems to be worthless. Dr. Dobson agreed, stating: "We will eventually be killing those who aren’t sick, those who don’t ask to die, those who are young and depressed, those who someone considers to have a poor quality of life, and those who feel it is their obligation to 'get out of the way.'" 1

The future course of legislation cannot be predicted. But the law that was approved by the voters of Oregon is very specific and narrow in application, and will never be used unless a terminally ill patient, who is of sound mind and not depressed, specifically requests assistance in dying on a repeated basis.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. James Dobson, "Dr. Dobson's Study: January 1998."
  2. A.L. Halpern.and A.M. Freedman, “Oregon’s Suicide Law Creates a Slippery Slope,” New York Times, New York, NY, 1997-NOV-2

Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" topics  > Assisted Suicide > here

or: Home page > "Hot" topics  > Suicide menu > Assisted Suicide > here

Copyright 1997 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated on 2010-SEP-04
Hyperlinks checked on 2008-APR-22
Author: B.A. Robinson
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