The word “euthanasia” draws its roots from Greek meaning “good death.” As it is used in this discussion, it means “the act of ending the life of a person suffering from either a terminal illness, or an incurable disease.” The AMA is against physicians assisting in euthanasia. There is currently only one state in the US that allows for euthanasia, and that is Oregon, where in 1997, the “Death With Dignity Act” went into effect. Euthanasia advocates stress that it should be allowed as an extension of a person’s autonomy. Those who are against euthanasia often say that it can lead to the devaluation of human life, and to a slippery slope in which the old and disabled will be killed on the whims of healthy people. We examined one case and the Oregon law to view the ethics of euthanasia.
A woman was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (the same
disease that Stephen Hawking has) 5 years ago. This is a condition that destroys motor nerves, making control of movement impossible, while the mind is virtually unaffected. People with motor neurone disease normally die within 4 years of diagnosis from suffocation due to the inability of the inspiratory muscles to contract. The woman’s condition has steadily declined. She is not expected to live through the month, and is worried about the pain that she will face in her final hours. She asks her doctor to give her diamorphine for pain if she begins to suffocate or choke. This will lessen her pain, but it will also hasten her death. About a week later, she falls very ill, and is having trouble breathing.
Questions for Case 1:
- Does she have a right to make this choice, especially in view of the fact that she will be dead in a short while (say six hours)? Is this choice an extension of her autonomy?
- Is the short amount of time she has to live ethically relevant? Is there an ethical difference between her dying in 6 hours and dying in a week? What about a year, and how do you draw this distinction?
- Is the right for a patient’s self-determination powerful enough to create obligations on the part of others to aid her so that she can exercise her rights? She clearly cannot kill herself. She can’t move, but should someone be FORCED to help her, or to find someone to help her?
- Should the money used to care for this woman be taken into account when she is being helped? Do you think that legalizing euthanasia could create conflicts of interest for the patient/ or the doctor? Will people feel that they need to end their lives earlier to save money?
- Ask each student: If you were the physician, what would you do? Note: if you would pass her off to another doctor knowing he or she would do it, does this free you from you ethical obligations?
Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act:
Students were given the two paragraphs that are found on the following web page: http://www.nightingalealliance.org/htmdocs/iss_a_p.htm. We then discussed the following questions pertaining to the Death With Diginity Act.
Death With Dignity Questions:
- Look at the requirements for the request. Do you see any problems with them? (The woman from case 1 would not qualify.)
- Why would they put in these guidelines? Should they be there, if they keep a competent person like the woman above from living her autonomy? (Is it to protect the doctors so they will not have to GIVE the medication?)
- Is there a moral difference between prescribing the drug and actually giving it to the patient? If not, why put in the rules?
- Why do you think they wouldn’t let a person who is terminally ill and in pain with possibly more than 6 months receive assistance in dying? Say someone is diagnosed with HIV?
- Does the justification of euthanasia necessarily justify the assisted suicide of a healthy person?
- Do you think a weakness of this law is the probability of patients being influenced by family members? (For example, for financial or other reasons?) Note: Approximately 60% of Oregonians in 2000 said (before they died) that they used the prescription at least in some part due to fear of being a burden on their family.
- The AMA says that euthanasia is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer. What do you think about this statement? Why should a physician have to be the one who does this?