In Depth

The pros and cons of legalising euthanasia

Is physician-assisted suicide murder or mercy?

Euthanasia is a controversial topic for legislatures around the world. Legal and normalised in some countries while totally taboo in others, it remains one of the key ethical debates at the juncture where politics meets philosophy.

Also known as assisted suicide, euthanasia involves “administering a lethal dosage of a certain medication, or ending all life support means, and letting a person who is terminally ill pass away at their own will,” says blog Flow Psychology.

Many believe that allowing a person who is terminally ill and in pain to pass away at their own will is morally right, but those opposed to the practice on religious, moral, and ethical grounds argue that nature must be allowed to take its course.

Here are some of the main arguments for and against legalising euthanasia:

Pros:

An end to suffering

In a 1996 US Supreme Court case regarding assisted suicide, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that the right of a mentally competent person facing a terminal illness to choose “a timely and dignified death”, rather than suffer excuciating pain in their final days, should be seen as “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty”.

Allowing patients to end their suffering is not only morally justified but also essential to upholding the right to personal and bodily autonomy, advocates argue. 

A “categorical ban on physician assistance to suicide... substantially interferes with this protected liberty interest and cannot be sustained”, the ACLU said.

Death with dignity

People in the late stage of terminal illness often end up bedridden and reliant on nurses and relatives for simple tasks such as eating, bathing and going to the toilet, which can be degrading.

Back in 2008, a woman suffering from terminal multiple sclerosis that had left her unable to take care of herself told The Daily Telegraph that such an existence was “torture”.

“If I was Spooky, my cat, I’d have been put down long ago,” she said.

Giving dying people the opportunity to choose when and how they die allows them to take control of their life and how they are remembered by their loved ones.

Eliminating fear of financial burden

A survey in the US state of Oregon, where assisted dying is legal, showed that 66% of euthanasia requests involved patients who did not want to be a financial burden, according to the New Zealand-based Life Information Website.

Inadequate funding for palliative care and pain management, and governments’ reliance on nursing homes, all contribute to the despair felt by many who reach old age, endure frustrating physical limitations, or are afflicted with debilitating conditions, the site says.

However, it adds, euthanasia opponents argue that the “provision of adequate pain management and hospice (palliative) care could improve quality of life and eliminate the demand for euthanasia”.

Cons: 

Corruption

Many believe that legalising euthanasia would put too much power in the hands of doctors, who could abuse their position.

Rita Marker, executive director of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, says: “Laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide are in place to prevent abuse and to protect people from unscrupulous doctors and others. They are not, and never have been, intended to make anyone suffer.

“Euthanasia and assisted suicide are not about the right to die. They are about the right to kill.”

‘Slippery slope’

Opponents also argue that normalising euthanasia would be a philophical slippery slope to legalised murder.

Edmund Pelligrino, a professor emeritus of medicine and medical ethics at Washington DC-based Georgetown University, says that “in a society as obsessed with the costs of healthcare and the principle of utility, the dangers of the slippery slope are far from fantasy”.

He continues: “If terminating life is a benefit, the reasoning goes, why should euthanasia be limited only to those who can give consent? Why need we ask for consent?”

Religious concerns

Many religious people, especially Catholics, believe that life is the ultimate gift and that taking that away is usurping power that belongs to God only. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes euthanasia on the grounds that life is “a gift over which we have stewardship but not absolute dominion”.

The Catholic tradition “clearly and strongly affirms that as a responsible steward of life one must never directly intend to cause one’s own death, or the death of an innocent victim, by action or omission”, the assembly concludes.

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