• Jessica Rieder

The Legal Status of Euthanasia

Over the years, euthanasia is a topic that has brought up quite the debate. Euthanasia, also known as assisted suicide, can be defined by the dictionary as “the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma”. It’s currently illegal in many places, but its legalization has spread over recent years.

One argument against allowing euthanasia comes down to the oath that doctors swear to, called the Hippocratic Oath. The oath includes the promise to do no harm, which raises the question of how ethical euthanasia is. According to the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics, “The involvement of physicians in euthanasia heightens the significance of its ethical prohibition. The physician who performs euthanasia assumes unique responsibility for the act of ending the patient's life." While they find it understandable that terminal patients may prefer death over living with a terminal, debilitating illness, they still argue that allowing a physician to engage in euthanasia would, in the end, cause more harm than good.

While physicians swear to do no harm, they also swear to do what benefits the patient. “When healing is no longer possible, when death is imminent and patients find their suffering unbearable, then the physician's role should shift from healing to relieving suffering in accord with the patient's wishes,” Marcia Angell, MD, Senior Lecturer in Social Medicine at Harvard, said.

While a doctor’s role in assisting a patient’s death is a part of the debate, there are many other factors. How these practices would extend to minors is another thing that stirs up a lot of controversy. Belgium has legalized euthanasia, and in 2014 they extended the legalization to minors as well. In 2016 and 2017, Belgium recorded the youngest cases of euthanasia in the world: a nine year-old with a brain tumor and an eleven year-old with cystic fibrosis. A part of the euthanasia process involves the CFCEE, which stands for the Federal Commission for the Control and Evaluation of Euthanasia. They review every case of euthanasia practiced to make sure the rules were followed, and found nothing wrong with the cases of the two minors. “I saw mental and physical suffering so overwhelming that I thought we did a good thing,” Luc Proot, a member of the CFCEE, said. After the request was made by the children, they underwent psychological tests including intelligence tests to determine that they had the intellectual capacity to make the decision. Upon passing, they needed parental consent, and the rest is literal history.

Euthanasia extending to minors is not the only controversial point in the debate. In Belgium and in the Netherlands, euthanasia is legal and the policies are considered fairly liberal. The practice is not only used for terminally ill patients, but also people who are severely depressed. This escalates significantly from the original purpose of euthanasia, which was to allow terminal patients with degenerative diseases to die with dignity and little suffering. It’s argued that everybody has the right to die, but it shouldn’t be an alternative to finding help for mental health. In 2012, euthanasia made up two percent of all Belgian deaths, and the rate of euthanasia cases is said to be increasing by 27% every year. The CFCEE published in 2016 that an average of 1 in 50 die through euthanasia. On top of that, 2015 carried over 2,000 euthanasia cases with 124 related to a “mental and behavioural disorder”. These were 124 people who could have been supported to find other ways to cope with their difficulties, but instead, the government gave up on them and allowed them to give up on themselves.

Euthanasia is not necessarily a bad practice; it just needs to have certain limits. The practice is legal in Oregon and the way they go about it is agreed with by around 70% of Americans according to an article published by The Cut in 2016. They keep strict rules surrounding the procedure, and only those with terminal illnesses qualify for consideration. After that, there is still a careful process in place that requires the patient to gain their physician’s approval. It’s used to save a patient’s dignity and avoid suffering, the way it should be. Euthanasia is not supposed to be used for cases of mental illness or for minors; it’s an extreme that should only come with very extreme, terminal circumstances.

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