Euthanasia was once again in the news this last week and no, the proverbial “Dr. Death” Jack Kevorkian has not risen from the grave. In this case, the commotion was caused by a recent law passed by the Belgian parliament which effectively extends the “right to die” to terminally ill patients of any age, making it the first national government in the world to do so. By some accounts, the law merely extends the provisions of Belgium’s longstanding pro-euthanasia policies, most enacted in 2002. For many within and without the country, however, it creates a moral quandary by allowing, in extreme cases of suffering, children to request that a physician administer to their deaths.
Indeed, even without this particular addendum, euthanasia remains a contentious issue throughout the world. In the United States, for example, four states—Montana, Oregon, Washington and Vermont—have legalized physician-assisted suicide, meaning that patients may end their own lives with a doctor’s help and oversight, but none allow for euthanasia, which permits a physician to take active part in the process if asked to do so. The latter practice, of course, has a particularly disreputable history. Most infamously, the Nazis employed “euthanasia” as a euphemism for their mass murder of nearly three thousand mentally and physically handicapped people during their systematic ethnic and genetic cleansing of German society.
Despite the fact that this was a state-sponsored crime, and despite the high professional (and financial) esteem in which Western societies presently hold their medical practitioners, such facts bring a number of important questions into sharp relief: namely, is euthanasia ever ethical and/or should physicians be invested with that degree of authority over their patients’ lives?
The answer to the first question is a somewhat less-than-emphatic yes. Depending on the severity of a patient’s case, one might easily extrapolate a number of ways in which ushering someone to his or her death (if they have requested it) is, at the very least, more merciful than forcing them to live. The most obvious of these is any person with extreme and unassuageable physical pain. In short, if a patient has minimal prospects for recovery and few avenues to achieve “normal” pleasures that most take for granted—eating, drinking, mental stimulation and physical relaxation—their wish to no longer exist should be honored.
Technological achievement has enabled humans to vastly improve the quality and quantity of our lives. But it has also allowed us to artificially extend it. The new Belgian law is progressive because it acknowledges the point at which one must consider quantity and quality separately. For someone, even a child or adolescent, stuck in the throes of irremediable cancer, an increase in quantity does not offset a decrease in quality.
Granted, euthanasia does not simply exist in some separate realm where good principles always yield good consequences. All people, even the best ones, can be subject to corruptive bias, and doctors are not excluded. Recent studies have determined that African Americans are three times less likely to support euthanasia than Caucasians, owing, in part, to past medical abuses of black patients by white doctors. Feminist scholar Susan M. Wolf has argued that, in real world cases, the gender of a patient may adversely skew a physician’s perception of his or her suffering. Both of these are valid points of objection, as are many others not outlined here.
Nevertheless, in principle, euthanasia is good if it is employed to give gravely ill patients some degree of control over their pain rather than forcing them to live with it. Life may always be too short, but it should never be too long.
Matthew Housiaux is a sophomore history and journalism major from Brookings, S.D.