The arrogance of mankind has dampened the hope that individuals can
achieve a dignified death.
"Science says: 'We must live,' and seeks the means of prolonging,
increasing, facilitating, and amplifying life, of making it tolerable
and acceptable, wisdom says: 'We must die' and seeks how to make us
die well." - M. De Unamund
Whoosh. Hum. Beep. Slurp. A clock alerts her. Time to flip
him over. The tired woman struggles to lift the six-foot, four-inch skeleton
for the fifth time that day. Time to suction the massive bedsores filled
with pustules. Slurp up the puss again. "Ed, do you want to try to
eat today?" No response. The eyes are vacant, and the expression
is infantile. The tongue hangs from the mouth, and a string of saliva
drools onto the bed sheets. The woman inserts liquid food into the feeding
tube once again. Hsss. Whoosh. Hum. Beep. Slurp.
"Ed, it's time to see if you've done your duty yet." The woman
peers into his diaper and sadly realizes that for the seventeenth day
in a row he has not had a bowel movement. Insert the suppository into
his rectum again. Hsss. Whoosh. Hum. Beep. Slurp.
This woman, once a strong-willed professional and competent mother
and grandmother, has lost fifteen years of her life to the task of caring
for someone who no longer recognizes her.
Euthanasia is the process of mercifully ending a person's life, allowing
that individual to escape terminal illness or an undignified death. The
term has taken on many new meanings in this modern age of medical technological
advancement. Scientists have devised numerous inventions to help prevent
the death of humans faced with medical tragedy. The question is just how
long humans should undergo life-saving and life-prolonging treatments
before they are permitted to die peacefully. The fierce battle between
those who support and those who oppose euthanasia has made society recognize
the importance of this topic. A rational understanding of the issue makes
it possible to respond to the objections of those who oppose euthanasia.
Understanding the issue will support the claim that all forms of euthanasia
should be made legal in the United States to protect the right that humans
should have to a benevolent death.
"Euthanasia is a new-fangled notion that violates traditional
social and religious beliefs!"
Human beings have practiced euthanasia since the classical era of
Greece and Rome. Deformed infants born in the city-state of Sparta were
left to die so that the society would not have to admit them into their
"strong and robust" society. The Romans would assist their elderly
citizens in dying so they could relieve their families of the burden of
their care (Shaeffer 5). Though Euthanasia has long been practiced, only
recently has society begun criminally prosecuting physicians who engage
"No civilized nation would permit a practice like euthanasia!"
The United States has laws that permit some forms of passive euthanasia,
which is the halting of medical treatment to allow the patient to die
of natural causes. Turning off a respirator or ending dialysis treatments
are forms of passive euthanasia that are practiced by doctors with a family's
consent in this country. In contrast, the Netherlands has made it legal
to practice other forms of euthanasia as well. Dutch physicians are able
actively to aid their patients in death if various precautions are first
taken. These safeguards include a long relationship between doctor and
patient and the involvement of a psychiatrist. Jay Branegan has studied
the practices of the Dutch and explains the safeguards that ensure that
death is a viable option for the patient:
Doctors report to a panel of legal, medical and ethical experts to
make sure these
guidelines were followed: the patient must be suffering unbearably from
incurable disease; he or she must make repeated requests for euthanasia;
doctor should know the patient well enough to ensure the request is
and the doctor must consult with another physician (2).
Like United States citizens, the Dutch have access to adequate health
care if they are stricken with a terminal illness. The Dutch government
provides universal medical coverage in well-equipped nursing facilities.
The ability to euthanize patients does not replace treatments to alleviate
pain. However, Dutch citizens also have the option of ending their suffering
if they so choose. The United States should follow the humane path of
the Dutch and legalize active forms of euthanasia.
"Euthanasia should be illegal because it violates the sanctity
of human life!"
The issues of abortion and euthanasia pose similar questions, yet abortion
is legal while euthanasia is not. A mother can choose whether or not she
wants the fetus inside of her to live or die. Since the case of Roe v.
Wade in 1973, it has been legal for a woman essentially to end the life
of another human being just because the woman does not want the burden
of raising a child. The methods of abortion are not humane; certainly
no one would consider sucking a fetus through a suction vacuum a compassionate
way to end its life. If a woman can choose to end her child's life, then
why is she not able to end her own life? The abortion laws established
in this country clearly state that it is legal for a woman to have an
abortion at any stage of pregnancy if that woman's life is at risk. Why
is it that when she grows old and wishes her own life to end, that decision
is illegal? It is hypocritical to say that a fetus' life can be sacrificed
to save the life of another, yet humans cannot end their own lives when
they are in the throes of a terminal illness.
One of the reasons that abortions were legalized in this
country is that women would receive dangerous and sometimes deadly abortions
outside of the law. The legalization of abortion has decreased the number
of women who have unsanitary and dangerous abortions outside hospitals
As in the case of illegal abortions, desperate patients
are now seeking ways to end their lives. Rita Marker notes that many devices
now are on the market, particularly on the Internet, which people are
purchasing to end their lives. Until the government legalizes euthanasia,
these items will be easy to get. Devices as risky and as inhumane as plastic
bags filled with deadly gases are sold on the Internet to victims of pain.
Marker states, "Patients don't say, 'Look, doctor, I want to put
my head in a plastic bag.' What they really want is a tablet" (4).
Hopeless patients seek methods to end their lives thinking that they will
unburden their loved ones by dying. Oftentimes these methods fail to "do
the job," and the person is left to live in a condition terribly
worse than before. The family is now left to take care of a person who
has become more of a burden than he could have imagined. Like women seeking
abortion, those in pain will seek methods of euthanasia. Until euthanasia
becomes legal, humans will continue to resort to illegal and ineffective
"If we have the technology to extend life, we are morally obligated
to use it!"
The arrogance of mankind has dampened the hope that individuals can
achieve a dignified death. One can read story upon story about medical
caretakers who become close to the patient or his family and want desperately
for that friend to find relief. However, some in the medical world have
become so obsessed with their own power over life that it is hard to see
human suffering at all. Barbara Hutton explains the tendency towards arrogance
that steers humans: "Had we, the whole medical community, become
so arrogant that we believed in the illusion of salvation through science?
Had we become so self righteous that we thought meddling in God's work
was our duty?" (556). Hutton is commenting that the medical community
has declared that its highly technological machines are the only option
for the ill. If a man is not able to control his body, think, or even
breathe, can we say that he is really a man at all?
We should not be spending thousands of dollars trying to sustain the
lives of those in terrible pain and wishing to die. Ellen Goodman questions
man's life-sustaining treatments, "Should we treat the incompetent
as aggressively as the competent? Should we order heart surgery for one
senile citizen? What is the mental line between a life worth saving and
the living dead? Who is to decide?" It seems futile to resuscitate
a man fifty-two times, as personnel did in one case (Huttman 556). Humans
need to realize that if a man has "died" fifty-two times, then
there is no point trying to save him, especially if that man is begging
for his own death. We must realize that death is meant to occur naturally.
Human beings need to be able to draw the line and decide for themselves
when it is time for them to depart from this world.
A Nurse's Perspective
As an experienced registered nurse in home-health care, I occasionally
see a patient who is better off dead. Many patients have suffered cardiac
death or anoxia (no oxygen) for long periods of time, so that their neurological
status is permanently damaged. I have multiple patients who are "vegetables".
They are quadriplegics, have no swallowing function, are incontinent of
urine and feces, and need oxygen.
This person has been revived but for what reason? The family is devastated,
exhausted, financially strapped, and depressed. The burden of care is
placed on one caregiver who must give up life, job, hobbies, and happiness
to provide daily care to the patient.
Typical patients will need suctioning every half hour so that they will
not aspirate. Suctioning is like the gurgly, garbled, frothy sound of
sucking on a straw. The yellow- green, thick mucus runs into a jar, sitting
at the patient's bedside for all to see. A rubber tube is in the patient's
stomach, and around the entrance of the tube is a red bloody stoma that
needs to be cleaned daily, or else a greenish-yellow skin infection will
occur. A large feeding pump is next to the patient, and a plastic feeding
bag is filled with a milky nutritious drink. This will run continuously
over twelve hours at a certain rate. The tubing runs into the stomach
tube. If the tube becomes kinked, the feeding will run all over the patient,
or the machine will beep endlessly, disturbing the quick nap the caregiver
may be taking. The patient has no control over his bowels or bladder,
so that he must have a catheter in his bladder. The urine drains down
into a bag beside the hospital bed, and at time turns a dark yellow or
purple. Moreover, the patient has to have a large diaper changed frequently.
Turning a two- hundred- pound patient frequently causes back problems
for the caregiver. The patient must have a full bath daily, and may develop
a bedsore, which can become the size of a crater and go all the way to
the patient's bone. Frequently, severe infections occur, and IV antibiotics
are given. The caregiver must clean and pack the wound two to three times
a day to prevent the infection's spread.
What quality of life does this patient have? He will not improve; he
will only deteriorate, causing increased stress and guilt to the family.
Shouldn't the patient be allowed to die with dignity? I have heard patients
beg to be put out of their agony because of the throbbing, pounding, piercing
pain spreading through their bones. Why not help the patient on his way
to peace and rest? - Mary, R.N.
In Search of a Humane Death
The legalization of euthanasia would be a compassionate act, and the need
for it is increasingly urgent. Modern science is creating wonderful techniques,
cures, and machines that are saving the lives of millions. Humans now
need to lose their arrogance and grant others the right to choose a peaceful
and merciful death. After all, the term euthanasia comes from the Greek
word meaning "good death." Thus, euthanasia should not be considered
an evil, but a "good" and calm way to leave this world. No matter
how much we wish to believe they are immortal, we must realize that our
bodies cannot sustain life infinitely.
Branegan, Jay. "I Want to Draw the Line Myself."
Time 17 Mar. 1997: 30.
Caplan, Arthur L. "Future Directions in Medical Ethics." Microsoft
Encarta 4.0 (2000). Microsoft. CD-ROM.
Goodman, Ellen. "Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Decides?" Rpt. in
Current Issues & Enduring Questions. Ed. Sylvan Barnet and
Hugo Bedau. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999. 560-566.
Huttman, Barbara. "A Crime of Compassion." Rpt. in Current
Issues & Enduring Questions. Ed. Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau.
Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999. 555-557.
Marker, Rita L. "Kids and Euthanasia." Human Life Review
26 (2000): 30-36.
Schaeffer, Pamela. "Rigali Intervenes: Feeding Tube Must Stay."
National Catholic Reporter 37 (2000): 5-7.
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