Euthanasia – is it murder or mercy?

Recent editorials in this newspaper have examined the Dutch government’s proposed legislation to legalize euthanasia under tight guidelines.

Euthanasia is a Greek word meaning “good death”. Webster’s encyclopedic dictionary of the English language describes euthanasia as the deliberate, painless killing of persons who suffer from a painful and incurable disease or condition, or who are aged and helpless.

Canadian Medical Association’s Code of Ethics for physicians says that passive euthanasia (allowing patient to die by witholding treatment) is morally permissible in certain circumstances. But active euthanasia (taking measures that directly cause a patient’s death) is wrong.

The issue of euthanasia is not new. Part of the Oath of Hippocrates says: I will follow that method of treatment which, according to my ability and judgement, I consider for the benefit of my patients, abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked nor suggest any such counsel.

Gradually, people’s opinions have changed. In the last 10 years, North American surveys have shown that public consistently show strong acceptance of mercy killing and regulated physician-assisted suicide, says Dr. Douglas Kinsella, MD, in a study published in the June 1999 issue of the Annals of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

Significant proportions (49 percent) of Canadian Physicians accept its morality and future legalization, and would wish it for themselves and close relatives, if legalized.

Two recent Canadian court cases of euthanasia are well known to the public. Cases against Dr. Nancy Morrison and Mr. Latimar.

In US, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, otherwise known as Dr. Death, took this issue to a new level when physician assisted death of Mr. Thomas Yourk was shown on television. Dr. Kevorkian is seen to inject the lethal drug. On previous occasions, Dr. Kevorkian has let the patients inject themselves so the doctor does not get legally implicated in the process.

It has been 10 years since Dr. Kevorkian, a retired pathologist, started his “mission” to help terminally ill patients die with dignity. He has assisted in more than 100 deaths. He has been charged and acquitted by juries atleast three times. In Mr. Yourk’s case, he was convicted. Mr. Yourk lived in Michigan, which bans assisted suicide.

Oregon has legalized euthanasia (The Oregon Death with Dignity Act). But the controversy continues. There is continuous process to monitor the use and abuse of the Act.

Netherlands established guidelines on euthanasia in 1984. One of the requirements is that the patient should make a voluntary request to die. A study shows that in 1990, there were 900 cases of non-voluntary euthanasia recorded. Now the Dutch government is going to legalize euthanasia. Is that going to change anything?

Whether anything is legal or not, certain individuals in society will continue to abuse the system either for selfish reasons or because they feel they are morally justified. How can you change that?

Besides, who decides if euthanasia is morally and legally right? Why do we accept that it is all right to watch people suffer and die slowly but it is wrong to practice active euthanasia?

Reasonable thing should be to offer euthanasia to the right people, at the right time, for the right reason, at the right place, by the right individuals and in the most dignified and humane way! Is that possible?

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