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Three years ago I watched as my grandmother slowly died, bit by bit, organ by organ. For the last six months of her life she was completely bed-ridden and could not speak except for incoherent murmurings which were too painful to listen to. Had she been in any condition to express her thoughts, I fear that she would have definitely asked to be put out of her suffering--"death with dignity" is how proponents of voluntary euthanasia would perhaps have advocated her case. At that time, I would have empathized with those who advocate surgeon-assisted suicide. Even today, arguments for ending unbearable suffering do evoke a sympathetic response from me. But even as someone who has seen close-up the pain that terminally ill patients and their relatives experience, I still find myself strongly opposed to voluntary euthanasia in any form.
Last month the United States Supreme Court announced that in its upcoming term it will decide whether Americans who are terminally ill have a right to get help from their doctors and family members to end their lives. This announcement came just a week after Robert Dent, a 66 year-old cancer sufferer, became the first person to die under Australia's Northern Territory's controversial legislation--the first of its kind anywhere in the world--legalizing voluntary euthanasia. In the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, many euthanasia advocates have cheered the Northern Territory law. They hope for similar laws in the United States in light of the Supreme Court's decision to consider the issue. However, many opponents of euthanasia, such as myself, feel gravely concerned at the potential consequences of the Australian law: for the first time ever there is actually government sanction for a process which effectively promotes killing as a form of healing, and death as a cure.
Iam opposed to euthanasia because I believe it violates the basic sanctity of all human life. I must admit that I am pro-choice, but that stance is based on the opinion that a fetus in the early stages of pregnancy is not a living human being. However sick or invalid, no one can deny that a patient is as human and that his life is as important as anyone else's. These views stem not from any particular religious belief, but out of a basic respect for human life anywhere and in any condition.
Most supporters of euthanasia maintain that they believe in the basic sanctity and dignity of life, but argue that ending the suffering of terminally ill patients at their request is actually a move which respects sanctity of life. For them death with dignity, as opposed to a life of pain and suffering, is more humane. However, such contentions seem to be concerned more with the quality of life than its sanctity. In effect their case is that if we need to decide between the two, quality of life is more important than the sanctity of life. Thus the extremely low quality of life of a terminally ill patient out-weights the very sanctity of that life and justifies his or her "mercy" killing.
The problem with such reasoning is that admitting that quality is more important that sanctity is tantamount to saying that individuals who have a lesser quality of life than us have a life which is less sacred. By this reasoning, our lives are more precious than those of the starving kids in Ethiopia who have an abysmally low quality of life and a very painful existence. If such individuals started demanding "voluntary" euthanasia, saying that their suffering was unbearable, would we be willing to accommodate them too? And what about a paraplegic who requests death? Are we going to refuse him because we judge that his life is more meaningful than that of a cancer sufferer and that his pain is less acute? Or are we going to let them all die? There simply is no "dignity" in such death, and society as a whole cannot appear to be condoning such practices by legalizing them.
As for those who fly the banner of the rights and wishes of the patient, we must keep in mind that certain individual freedoms, such as the right to sell oneself into slavery, must be restricted because of their broader societal implications. And the societal implications of physician-assisted suicide are grave, as is the potential for misuse. The right to die could become a duty to die, with patients feeling pressurized into requesting euthanasia. Patients might choose to die not because they cannot bear physical pain anymore, or because they don't want to live, but because they decide that the financial and emotional burden that they are placing on their families and loved ones is not worth it.
Furthermore, this is only the best case scenario in which no pressure is brought to bear on the patient by those around him. The physician in a resource-constrained public hospital, the patient's health insurance company, or relatives who themselves feel emotionally and financially drained might all pressure the patient. Once death becomes an option, patients will find themselves having to justify their right to live, and people who would otherwise never contemplate euthanasia would find themselves forced into considering this "option."
Of course, proponents can argue that there would be safeguards for the practice--the law in the Northern Territories requires that a psychiatrist and three doctors examine the patient to establish that the patient is terminally ill, and that he or she is of sound mind. But the scenarios described above pertain to patients who are not only terminally ill, but have made a rational decision that they want to end their lives. However, their reasons remain unjustifiable to society in general. So then, who is to determine who really qualifies for the procedure? Are we going to restrict it to simply those who suffer physical pain? What about mental suffering? It can be claimed that the mental suffering associated with a terminal disease is as unbearable as physical pain. Are we to dispute and disregard such suffering or do we acknowledge such cases and, therefore, kill terminally ill patients who are not in serious physical pain?
If pain and suffering is the bench-mark for which terminally ill patients can request the "right to die," what are we to do about the palliative care inequities that exist across the world, including in the United States? Once voluntary euthanasia is legalized and widely practiced, patients may request this procedure because they haven't been provided proper pain treatment If treated properly with the necessary pain killers, these patients would not seek to end their lives. Of course we could argue that voluntary euthanasia should be practiced only in those cases where the best palliative care has already been provided, but is that a realistic assumption?
Proponents of voluntary euthanasia also contend that physician assisted suicide is already practiced by countless doctors across the world, it's just that it's never reported. Therefore, the argument goes, by legalizing euthanasia we would actually be reducing the potential for misuse because such a process would then be subject to close scrutiny with strict guidelines. But if there are doctors who play God already, although it is illegal, given a freer hand, there might be doctors who could even more severely misuse their powers. A physician has a job to perform, and that is to save lives; just like a lawyer who has to defend his client even if he knows that his client is guilty, a surgeon cannot pass a value judgement on a patient's quality of life. A surgeon has to do everything he or she can to preserve that life.
The "right to die" and "death with dignity" brigade do not occupy the moral high ground on this issue. And they are certainly not the only ones with compassion for those who suffer. All of us feel the pain and anguish of those we love who are terminally ill; like many others, I have personally experienced the anguish of a loved one experiencing a slow, painful death. But my response to such suffering differs fundamentally from those who would legalize euthanasia. As a society we should show compassion for those who suffer, not by saying "we can help you get rid of your pain--by getting rid of you," but by making such individuals feel wanted. We should provide them with companionship, care and love, and send out the message that every life is sacred to us. We should cherish every extra second that the sick and suffering have amongst us. Sixty years down the road, I do not wish to be justifying to those around me that my existence is actually a meaningful one. Do you?
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