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A take on the ethics behind physician-assisted suicide

Life. Liberty. The Pursuit of Happiness. These three unalienable rights, espoused by our forefathers and guaranteed to us by the Constitution, comprise the very foundation of our nation. These are freedoms that all citizens should be guaranteed, but patients undergoing unimaginable pain and life-threatening illnesses have been denied each promised right. They have no control over their lives. They do not have the liberty to determine their futures, nor the faculty to pursue a standard of happiness or at least comfort that is unavailable to them in this world.

It astounds me that these fundamental ideals are continuously violated by a Constitution which places a greater premium on preserving an abstract concept of “life” than an individual’s ability to control what is unequivocally theirs — their death. While preserving life may seem like a noble endeavor, the only viable reality for certain groups whose lives have been riddled with pain and suffering is a painless death.

Euthanasia, or physician assisted suicide, is the legal and painless killing of a patient suffering from a lethal or painful affliction. A subject of debate for many years, euthanasia has garnered criticism and support in both the scientific community and the general public. This practice is prohibited in many countries, and is legal only in six of the 50 states. Maryland is not one.

According to code section Health-Gen. §§5-611 and 5-614, Maryland law prohibits euthanasia but allows for the withdrawal or withholding of life-sustaining treatments. However, this distinction between refusal of treatment and euthanasia seems arbitrary. While abstaining from treatment may alleviate some of the direct guilt on the part of the physician, the overall result remains the same: the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment only prolongs an inevitable death. Refusal of treatment is often a slower and more painful way for patients to commit suicide, and should not be the only option available to them when they no longer have the strength or the will to continue to survive.

 Some physicians argue that euthanasia is an irreversible and rash solution to pain, which can be improved by more effective palliative care. After all, euthanasia seems like an impractical solution to pain when painkillers exist. However, this viewpoint fails to consider the tremendous and debilitating emotional toll these illnesses may have on the afflicted. Merely numbing the physical pain resulting from a terminal illness disregards the emotional struggles that pills simply cannot address.

Others cite the Hippocratic Oath that requires physicians to “do no harm,” stating that euthanasia is a blatant violation of the physician’s duty as a healer. But when considering between a desired death and lifelong suffering, the definition of doing harm is not so clear-cut.

Perhaps one of the most publicized examples of the inherent right people have to their manner of death and the harm in denying them is Ramon Sampedro, who took his life on January 12, 1998. After suffering a tragic diving accident at 25 that left him paralyzed from the neck down, he decided that life had become a prison for him; he was a slave to his paralysis. He spent the remainder of his life fighting for the right to die with self-respect, and finally ended his life with cyanide. In his suicide tape, he said, “when I drink this, I will have renounced the most humiliating of slaveries: being a live head stuck to a dead body.” As a testament to the power of his story, director Alejandro Amenabar created the biographical film “The Sea Inside” which has engendered support of the cause Sampedro championed.

People reserve the right to die with dignity. Instead of being laid victims to their inflictions until their death, often completely unrecognizable both physically and emotionally by their loved ones, they should be able to leave life on their own terms and take control of their fates. They deserve control over the lives that they lead.

I don’t know what I would do if I were forced to live life with pain and a fear of death. I certainly don’t know if euthanasia would be my first option. But I think that the idea that I could have that control over my fate would afford me a certain amount of comfort. Who are we to withhold that from anyone?

Article by MoCo Student staff writer Rebecca Huang of Richard Montgomery High School

About The MoCo Student

In 2012, Student Member of the Board of Education John Mannes created a countywide press network to help build a conduit to share fresh and relevant information written by youth to the wider Montgomery County student body.

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