What is Euthanasia

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Last updated: November 21, 2019

One of the biggest problems in discussing the rights and wrongs of euthanasia is that people use the word to mean different things. For some of us, euthanasia conjures up pictures of granny snuggling under the duvet as her doctor mixes the fatal potion at her bedside.

Others might associate it with the decision to turn off the life support machine attached to an unconscious road accident victim. Yet for others euthanasia will bring to mind something more personal – we may be reminded of a friend or relative who died in what seemed like unnecessary pain. Could ‘euthanasia’ have been an option there? A lot depends on what we mean by the word ‘euthanasia’. Because unless we know what we’re talking about, we won’t be able to decide whether it is right or wrong. And the best place to start is to find out what euthanasia is not!What Euthanasia Is NotIn the examples that follow we can see that the doctor has no intention of killing his patient – that is why they do not count as ‘euthanasia’.Stopping treatmentIf a person is near death, a doctor may decide to stop life prolonging treatment. This may be because the drugs and treatment are no longer giving effect or because their side effects are causing the patient a lot of distress for very little gain.

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This is not euthanasia. Doctors should be able to recognise when a person is dying and should do all they can to help the patient die in peace. Consider the following, story: “When I was a young doctor, I remember looking after a man whose lungs were seriously damaged by a particular disease for which there was no cure. He came into hospital in the last stages of respiratory failure. I wanted to rush in with machines and drugs to save him. But the wise physician for whom I was working said ‘Enough is enough’. Then I realised, my duty was plain – it was to relieve the patient’s distress and see that he died in dignity and comfort.”Switching off a respiratorAfter severe injury, many patients are put on a respirator – equipment to help them breathe whilst doctors assess the degree of injury.

Where death has occurred, the life support machine is turned off. This is not euthanasia since the doctor has not intentionally ended their patient’s life.Treating pain.To treat pain in dying patients, doctors have to give large doses of strong drugs at frequent intervals. Sometimes it looks as if the person is made worse by the drug rather than better, and they may even die! This is not euthanasia.

All drugs have side effects. And the side effect of controlling pain may be to weaken the patient and bring death more quickly. For example, someone with a weak heart may find breathing painful and the doctor may decide to give a dose of morphine to relieve the patient’s distress. However, the morphine will also make the patient’s breathing less efficient – and so raise the chances that the patient will die sooner than expected!What Euthanasia IsEuthanasia is defined by INTENT. Where a doctor, friend or relative intentionally ends a person’s life to ‘finish their suffering’, this is euthanasia. In Holland, (where euthanasia is permitted though not legalised), there are many such cases. In 1987, the Sunday Times produced a long feature on one Dutch doctor who has killed many of his patients over the past 10 years. It describes how, at the patient’s request, he killed them using an injection or a drip of poisonous drugs.

What’s All The Fuss About?First, we must look at what the pro-euthanasiasts want.* They want to make an exception to the present law so that killing for the sake of mercy is not a punishable offence.* They want patients to have the legal right to demand that a doctor kill them.* They want doctors to be able to kill patients without fear of punishment.* They want people to be encouraged to declare in advance what sort of treatment they should or should not receive if they became incapacitated through accident or illness. These ‘declarations’ are known as ‘living wills’ and would have legally binding status (as they do in many U.

S. States).What’s Wrong With Mercy Killing?Demands like these raise many serious problems* Doctors make mistakes. Much of the pro-euthanasia argument depends on the naive assumption that doctors have the ability to know precisely if and when a patient will die.* “A woman of 86 recovered yesterday from an ‘irreversible’ coma and began talking and eating on her own. Dr Michael Wolff, a specialist in geriatric medicine, told last Friday’s court hearing there was no chance Mrs Coons would recover. He said he was at a loss to explain what had happened.” Daily Telegraph 4/89.

* Psychological and emotional pressures. When a sick or elderly person asks for euthanasia, how can we be sure they are making a free choice to die? How can we be sure it is their decision and that no one has pressurised them into it? We all know how many old people are afraid of ‘being a burden’ to their children and grandchildren. Subtle pressure from the family – even things like lack of living space may all push an old person into asking for euthanasia if it were available.

* Euthanasia is not simply a personal affair as some would have us believe. It is about one person agreeing with another person that their life is no longer worth living. Clearly, any doctor who thought that his patient’s life was worth living wouldn’t perform euthanasia! If this change were incorporated in law, this would be a radical threat to all of us.

We would no longer be protected from attack because we are human beings but because certain other members of society think we have worthwhile lives. The danger for those who may not be considered to have worthwhile lives – the elderly, the handicapped, psychiatric patients, long term prisoners – is all too clear. The logic of voluntary euthanasia is involuntary euthanasia.* A damaged medical profession. A good relationship between patient and doctor has to be based on trust. If we knew that our doctor had killed as well as cured other patients in the past, would we really trust our doctor with all our hang ups and fears? One survey in Holland (where euthanasia is practised openly) showed that 63% of people in Old Age Homes feared that one day their lives might be ended without their consent or knowledge.* Loose terminology – unforeseen results. We all know the problems of signing legal documents! You need a lawyer just to explain them first! Imagine the dangers of a form in which you give someone the right to end your life under certain circumstances! These forms – called living wills – are becoming increasingly popular in the USA.

However, evidence suggests that the people who sign them have little idea of how they may be interpreted by doctors at a future date. There are no grounds for giving doctors powers to end life – especially when the forms are open to widely differing interpretations.* Giving doctors too much power. Doctors themselves would be the first to admit that they are in positions of great power over their patients, the ‘doctor knows best syndrome.

To add to what some already see as an unhealthy patient-doctor power balance by giving the doctor even more power – the power to kill, is a very unsafe and unwise thing to do.* Doctors have always said ‘No!’. For thousands of years, doctors have refused to aid suicide or participate in euthanasia. Their job was not to kill, but to cure.

Recently the medical profession published a report on euthanasia (BMA Report 1988) in which it restated its opposition to any moves to change the law “We do not, at present, see that any general policy condoning medical interventions to terminate life can be reconciled with commitments to good medical practice.” (p19)* Missing: chief witness for the prosecution. There are many problems with making an exception to the laws against murder. Such laws are there to show that we respect every human being whatever their state of health and to protect us all from the harmful encroachment of others. If we admit that in some circumstances it is right to legalise the killing of one private citizen (a patient) by another (a doctor), then where is the protection for the rest of us? If foul play is suspected, proof of wrong doing will be virtually impossible to obtain since the chief witness is now dead!* Killing for those who want it – and for those who don’t. If we accept euthanasia for those who request it we will soon accept it as necessary for those who haven’t requested it. Already some doctors and philosophers are talking about killing handicapped newborn babies. One doctor recently argued that we should allow families to decide whether their elderly parents ought to be killed or not ‘for the sake of the survival of the unit’.

These ideas are already around. If we legalise euthanasia – we will simply provide a seed bed for these horrendous views to grow.Christian ConsiderationsThe Christian understanding of life also leads right away from euthanasia.* We are made in the image of God; human life is therefore uniquely precious. Human life is God’s gift to us; we are not the owners but rather the stewards of it.

We belong to God because God made us.* The Christian belongs to Christ in a special way because we have been redeemed. Our aim is not to please ourselves but to serve Christ who intercedes on our behalf with a loving Father.

Whilst not removing us from the trials and tribulations common to all in this world, he is working things out for the good of all who love him.* There are many instances of people in Scripture whom we could regard as prime candidates for euthanasia. Yet those who most ‘needed’ this sort of help were not the ones to take it: Job, David, Jeremiah, Jesus. Only the apostate King Saul saw suicide as a helpful option. When Job’s wife told him to ‘curse God and die’ he knew that she spoke as an unbeliever, someone who did not recognise God as Creator of all things.

The Alternatives* Good medical care. Research has shown that 85% of patients with pain can be totally relieved with the help of drugs; a further 10% can be relieved almost completely; and the remaining 5% can have their pain removed for much of the time. No one need die in pain. Doctors need specialised training in this area to learn how to use drugs in the most efficient way.* Hospices. Hospices provide a positive homely environment for the seriously ill and dying patient. One woman said “I came here to die of cancer. Now I have learned how to live with cancer.

” Hospices allow people to live to the full right to the end and they are staffed by people who are specially trained in the needs of the dying.* Company. Some 2.2 million old people live alone in the U.K. seldom going out or seeing friends.

Loneliness is one of the main causes of depression and illness – one of the main reasons for requesting euthanasia. We must keep in touch with our neighbours and our family; a visit once a week could make a world of difference to someone who may otherwise live and die unnoticed.

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