Thursday, June 10, 2010

Euthanasia's terrible reputation

I find it odd that people have serious reservations about euthanasia still.  This isn't to say that there aren't serious considerations that need to be taken into consideration about whether it should be performed in this instance or that instance.  But the act, generally, is hard to deny. 

Perhaps, its because of its association with the Nazi party that really made things difficult for euthanasia to gain a foothold in the public consciousness.  I think, though, this is a product of the unfortunately powerful Nazi propaganda machine more than anything.  To say that the Nazi's engaged in euthanasia is like saying a straight man is being discriminatory towards males.  Its a misuse of the term.

When the Nazi's utilized "euthanasia" the state determined when it was acceptable for a person to live or die, not based on any particular medical condition, patient desire, or quality of life issue, but rather based on a perceived inferiority of a particular group.  We properly call this genocide, and although many today call it that, its hard to shake the synonymous relationship that history made between genocidal acts and euthanasia. 

When I speak about euthanasia, I'm referring to a medical practice of terminating a life because the person is terminally ill.  The least controversial form of euthanasia, is voluntary euthanasia, where the person to be euthanize is terminally ill and requests euthanasia.  There are cases that fall in-between these definitions, and although they are very difficult, I wouldn't call them euthanasia.  I'm thinking of cases in which a person is not terminally ill, but requests to be killed because of quality of life issues and their inability to terminate their own lives.  The film "Million Dollar Baby" is a good example of such a case. 

Surely, we can see the moral differences between the Nazi genocide program, and euthanasia.  The Nazis murdered people who wanted to continue to live.  If they did want to die, it is most likely because of the conditions that the Nazi's forced them to endure within concentration camps.  Causing a person to suffer from a terminal illness is just as bad as murdering them.  In the case of euthanasia, assumedly, the doctor or the government did not cause directly their current afflictions, nor is their choice for living out the remainder of their life taken away from them. 

Old associations die hard though.  (This is by no means a full account of why euthanasia is acceptable.  This is simply an account of why a very common objection to euthanasia is not a powerful objection.)


  1. "Causing a person to suffer from a terminal illness is just as bad as murdering them." I don't think that I agree with that statement, depending on how you define terminal illness and depending on what extent the person is "suffering".

  2. Whats the significant difference? I brought about your death, by infecting you with something that will kill you.

    If I poison you, with a poison that takes 24 hours to work, didn't I murder you?

    If I infect you with an illness that will kill you in 24 hours.... 48 hours... a week... a month... I still killed you. I'm not sure where the moral difference is, and I'm not sure where suffering really needs to be taken into account here. Sure there are worse ways to be murdered, but murder is still morally bad.

  3. If you poison me with a cigarette (first, second or third-hand) and it takes me 53 years to die of cancer, did you still kill me? If that is the case then the tobacco industry is responsible for the greatest mass murder in history (One which is still ongoing).
    That said, causing a person to suffer unto death is not as bad as outright murder, we all experience degrees of pain until we die. Some are worse than others, some seem unbearable at times, but, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Cancer may one day kill me, because I inhaled a carcinogenic addictive substance, but I'd rather go on living right now than have Big Tobacco come put an end to me today, even if they're just trying to be merciful to me, so that I may avoid the inevitable painful death. This is because, despite life being painful, it is still better to live than not.

  4. mmm.. Maybe the tobacco industry is guilty to mass murder in the past, but today, not so much, since most smokers know and assume the risk when they smoke.

    Maybe instead of saying suffer, I should have said inflict or infect, because you seem stuck on that point.

    As for Nietzsche's over used quote... There isn't any real argument behind that (I dare you to find an argument supporting that in Nietzsche's writings). It's an assertion, one that is erroneous if he means physically stronger, and one that is erroneous if he means mentally stronger for many many people. But then again, Nietzsche's philosophy isn't supposed to apply to everyone so, he'd shrug that off.

  5. I always admired Jack Kevorkian, whatever his faults, and agree with you that the predominant cultural attitude towards euthanasia is a bit skewed. For me the scary part is not so much that euthanasia is illegal, but that, as with abortion, an individual's right to choose something so personal is completely overridden (and punishable under the law!) because a powerful majority, likely operating under religious ideas of human essence, holds life arbitrarily sacred. Suicide is in a similar situation. I respect life in all forms (being a vegan, I include nonhumans here), but I also respect a person's right to choose whether or not to go on living. To make that criminal, and prosecute doctors offering such a humane service, bothers me.

  6. Justin - I think you bring up an important point that we can respect life, and respect a person's autonomy at the same time. They're not mutually exclusive, even though sometimes they're treated as such.

  7. Thank you, Wayne, for the response. The waters become muddy if people try to equate abortion with euthanasia, or nonhuman vs. human euthanasia. I think the key factor that distinguishes human euthanasia--i.e., specifically assisted suicide, not genocide or anything--is the ability of the person to make a personal choice. For the other instances, it is more about us making choices for *others*, which adds another layer of ethical responsibility and factors to be considered--since the lives affected are not one's own. Anyway, thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Wayne.

  8. The hard question of euthanasia is when the patient is unconscious. Something like a long lasting coma, not a vegetative state. Is it okay to euthanize them, like an animal, or must we keep them alive until they either become vegetative, or awaken from the coma and ask for euthanasia (assuming a reason for asking it).

  9. Yep, that is definitely an ethical wringer, and there surely cannot be a single right answer. Something so important would have to be a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration all the factors. But to prohibit, by law, having the option to "pull the plug" does not seem right to me, just as does the opposite (taking an "always pull the plug" attitude). Not sure if that really solves the problem or answers the question, though.