Hazel McCallion Senior Public School
By Elizabeth Tan (Grade 8)
We all fear dying. Our one comfort in dying is the hope that we may die with peace, liberty and dignity. And although it's not always accepted in every corner of our community, euthanasia fits the very definition of our comfort. The Greek definition is a combination of two words: "eu"-easy, happy, painless, and "thanatos", meaning death. The British House of Lords' definition is "a deliberate intervention undertaken with the express intention of ending a life to relieve intractable suffering."
Euthanasia has been a source of great inner and community conflict as people search for an ethical standard that will appease all those who seek answers to what is truly needed. The instinctive drive for survival should not only mean to seek to survive, but also to seek to lead healthy, productive lives. For many, these are seen as gifts from God, and ones that are not taken lightly. The act of euthanasia is, at worst, "seen to go against instinct and to cheapen the grace of God. At best, it is seen as relieving a person's suffering and allowing a course of dignity. In light of our own need to live life to the fullest, we want, when we see others suffering, to work very hard to help them," stated Anglican minister, Reverend Brian Wood.
The question of ethics in sustaining life seems to be answered in the definition of death itself. Medically, death is stated as "a permanent state of tissue anoxia" -- in more common terms, the heart-lung cessation. However, since the 1950's, cerebral brain death (patients who require ventilation to maintain their breathing) has also been medically-accepted as death. But if a person is being kept alive by artificial means, shouldn't the family be allowed to disconnect the machines and allow the patient to die, since medically, he or she is already considered dead? Shouldn't people be allowed to decide whether to end their own lives with someone's help while they are still able to make that decision?
On April 15, 1975, Karen Ann Quinlan, twenty-one, was treated in the emergency room of Newton Memorial Hospital after some friends had discovered that she had stopped breathing. During the treatment, she was put on a life-support system that kept her respiratory system in functioning order. It was discovered that she had stopped breathing for at least two 15-minute periods before treatment and suffered extreme brain damage as a result. As time passed, it became apparent that Karen would not recover.
Karen's parents requested that the respirator be removed so that, as her father expressed, "she could return to her natural state so that we could place her body and soul in the loving hands of the Lord." Doctors, though, intervened and refused to do it based on moral grounds. After several court cases, Karen's parents won the right to remove the respirator and the extraordinary means that were used to maintain Karen's life were ceased. Karen didn't die immediately. For over nine years, she remained in a coma and died later of respiratory failure on June 11, 1985. Should moral grounds take precedence in cases like this? Should Karen have been allowed to die long before she did?
Although ethicists centre themselves on both sides of this battle, upon learning that someone has become impaired, we tend to be moved to compassion and see another side of things. Our morals and views on euthanasia are greatly influenced by the cases and the people that surround us. In ethicist Paul Ramsay's book, he wrote, "It is right and proper to remove Karen from any extraordinary measures. The curing has reached a point of no measurable effect and now the caring or ordinary measures are called for."
A second case of euthanasia involved Sue Rodriguez, who in April 1992 was diagnosed as having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Over the course of time, this motor neuron disease destroys common bodily functions, including the ability to swallow and muscle control. It will eventually rob the victim of all freedoms and joys in life. While Sue was still able to communicate, she had asked the court's permission for a physician-assisted suicide. But she was unsuccessful. She then petitioned for the introduction of physician-assisted suicide law. After a two-year legal battle, Sue Rodriguez did what she was told she could not do and died with the aid of an unnamed doctor.
"Asking a physician to aid her in her death would have been appropriate because her need was so great. Her quality of life was important to her. Living in a state of uncontrol was unthinkable for her, and she did not want to be a burden on her family and friends. When life comes to the point that its quality is not useful or an agony, then the ending of it might be the good loving response," pointed out biomedical ethicist Joseph Fletcher. The standard of quality seems to be the key issue in living, and the day that quality has disappeared, we'd rather see an end to the misery.
The elected government rejected the idea of passing legislation on this issue because of the fear of reprisals at election time. But, just once, can't the government take a stand on such issues and if not, then at the very least allow the public to vote on such issues themselves? However, as pointed out by Tony Burke, "No one is ignoring the issue of euthanasia. Around the world, parliaments are considering it and rejecting it. They are rejecting euthanasia on the basis of one, single, unifying principle: the people who will be most at risk are the most vulnerable and a law that fails to protect people who are vulnerable will always be a bad law."
And there is no doubt that people take advantage of laws for their own advancement, however, as Joseph Fletcher clearly explains in his article, Ethics and Euthanasia, "It is harder morally to justify letting someone die a slow and ugly death, dehumanized, than it is to justify helping him to escape such misery." Perhaps, one day, the law will be able to see the other side of euthanasia's tragic story.