Euthanasia: Must It Be Refused?

In 1975 Karen Ann Quinlan entered a coma after an overdose of drugs and alcohol. Doctors placed her on a respirator, hoping that she would recover.

She didn’t. Karen had suffered irreversible brain damage. She did not regain consciousness, and after three months her family accepted the fact that she would never wake up. Karen’s parents finally asked doctors to remove the respirator.

Everyone thought that Karen would die without the aid of the respirator. the doctors and hospital administrators, reasoning that removing the machine would be the same as killing her, refused to do it. The Quinlans sued to force the hospital to honor their request. Their lawyers presented evidence that Karen’s condition was hopeless. The family’s lawyers argued that the hospital’s continued medical intervention in Karen’s case was a violation of her privacy. Karen had a right to die in peace, they claimed. Ultimately the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed with the Quinlans, and the respirator was turned off.

When the tubes were finally removed, Karen did not die as everyone as expected. Instead, she lived on for nine more years. Finally, in June 1985, Karen Ann Quinlan died without regaining consciousness even once.

Karen and her family suffered a great deal of pain for almost ten years, simply because the doctors to put an end to her suffering; they refused Karen Ann Quinlan the right to die.

Diane was more fortunate. After she was diagnosed with acute myelomonocytic leukemia, the oncologist immediately assumed that she would want treatment and began scheduling her induction chemotherapy. Diane was enraged by the diagnosis as well as her choice being taken for granted, and eventually refused all treatment and left the hospital for home.

Despite her good chances of survival, Diane came back to her doctor the next week and clearly stated that she wanted to die. After a few months of careful planning, Diane said her last good-byes and took a planned overdose of sleeping pills.

Diane, with the help of her doctor Timothy E. Quill, committed medically-assisted suicide, which many people still consider to be euthanasia.

Must doctors prolong the life of the suffering and the terminally ill? Do they have the right to determine when one should die? No. Even if a patient is terminally ill, it’s still their life and their right to choose to terminate it. Doctors ultimately have no right to refuse a patient’s request for euthanasia.

Euthanasia is the practice of ending a life so as to relieve an individual from an incurable disease or intolerable suffering. There are two forms of euthanasia: passive euthanasia is the withdrawal of any aid used to prolong life; active euthanasia is deliberate action to evoke death.

In their efforts to delay death, doctors rely on modern technology. Physicians now have the means to take over the functions of nearly every vital organ in the human body. Such technology can play vital roles in recovery following surgery or serious illness, and can sometimes extend life even when it cannot cure diseases like AIDS and cancer. However, in the final stages of such terminal diseases technology is merely prolonging the dying process.

That is how technology is used today--to keep the terminally ill alive until a true cure is developed. Of course, that could take years. In the meantime, the patient has to endure extended suffering. Like Karen, the patient is not allowed to die.

Why do doctors do such a thing? Most practicing doctors, in their defense, bring up the oath of Hippocrates, an oath which all physicians must take. With the oath they promise not to do anything that will harm their patient, to relieve suffering and to prolong life. Many physicians point out that the oath of Hippocrates includes a ban on killing patients. And yet, the oath also calls for doctors to do only that which will benefits those in their care--including putting an end all the suffering when there is no known cure.

Dr. Timothy E. Quill, professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York, was Diane’s doctor. Dr. Quill believes that it is the physician’s job to relieve suffering, and that sometimes this requires assisting terminally ill patients in suicide. He writes,

“...To think that all patients can be helped with more pain-relieving medication and treatment for depression is naive. Some are forced to act on their own lives rather than continue suffering. Prohibition of physician-assisted suicide handcuffs doctors who want to show compassion to patients whose bodies are irreversibly falling apart despite excellent medical care.”

Quill’s opinion is not new. It dates back to ancient Greece, where the people were generally sympathetic to euthanasia, provided that the deed was done for the right reasons--to end the suffering of the fatally ill, for example. In the classical context then, there was a recognized tolerance of the “freedom to leave,” which permitted the sick or the suffering to terminate their lives. Furthermore, under appropriate circumstances, it was permissible for others to administer the means of death.

For the ancient Greeks, dying decently and rationally mattered immensely. And the dignity of dying still carries on to today. Many terminally ill patients like Diane choose to die rather than to rely on technology for an extended life.

Theresa M. Stephany is another advocate of euthanasia. Stephany, a registered nurse, admits that it is better to end the suffering now, when dignity can still be retained. Many patients’ bodies deteriorate quickly, and in time the burden of waiting becomes too great. The patient, who has to struggle through yet another day, and the families, who must provide financial and emotional support. Stephany writes: “The very occasional patient who is determined to end his/her not in pain. The patient simply prefers death to the life he or she is left with...[t]hey know what lies ahead and they’d rather not continue with it.”

So, one asks, what is stopping them? One main source of opposition is the Christian faith. Active euthanasia among the ill became uncommon and unusual around the second century AD because of the growing importance placed by the Judeo-Christian teachings. Life was said to be a gift from god and, since man was created in the image of God, life thus belonged to God. To voluntarily end it was to take from God and insult His gift. Thus, the Jewish and the Christian faiths condemn euthanasia and consider it as a sin.

David Cundiff, an oncologist, also disagrees with the concept of physician-assisted suicide. He maintains that terminally ill patients do not have to resort to euthanasia to escape their pain and suffering. The hospice approach to treatment can make dying easi