Euthanasia refers to the practice of intentionally ending a life in a painless manner. The term Euthanasia is from the Greek, meaning “good death”: eu- (well or good) + thanatos (death). For many centuries religious and cultural beliefs have caused a majority of societies to reject euthanasia with many equating it to murder or suicide.
As long as a society chooses to accept a traditionally embedded fixed law – such as a law like “Thou Shall Not Kill” derived from the ten commandments, the anti euthanasia law remains, nevertheless changes in attitude to such laws are becoming increasingly evident.
One area of continuing concern is that euthanasia has the potential to be misused. Convenient death of old people standing in the way of inheritance is always a genuine possibility or in an absolute worse case scenario the Nazi final solution of the 1930s and 40s. Historically we cannot forget that the euphemistically named “euthanasia program” code-named Action T4 was based on eugenics and in the German leadership eyes excusable on the grounds of necessary racial hygiene. If nothing else it should also remind us that any pro-euthanasia legislation has historical precedence for misuse.
There is a distinction between voluntary euthanasia and involuntary euthanasia. There are also euthanasia machines and booklets suggesting designs for such machines available for voluntary euthanasia. A friend of mine, without telling friends and relatives, actually built and used an anaesthetic machine to accomplish the same effect when he was suffering from terminal cancer.
Involuntary euthanasia occurs where an individual makes a decision for another believing the other person to be incapable of deciding for themselves. Here it is similar, at least in intent, to the coup de grâce or “death blow” of ancient Greece or Rome given to end the misery of a dying enemy or friend. Euthanasia may be passive, non-active, and active. Passive euthanasia occurs where common treatments are avoided or withheld knowing that it may also result in death. Passive euthanasia is a common practice in most hospitals. Often relatives are asked if they would sanction such a procedure. Non-active euthanasia occurs life support is withdrawn and is very controversial. Active euthanasia occurs with the use of lethal substances or forces to kill are understandably much more controversial.
The following factors seemed to be behind some of the changes.
1. Medical care has developed to the point where technology and pharmacology can keep a patient alive long past the time where they might previously have died. Where this is done to the point where all quality of life has long ceased, and continued existence is placing increasing stress on the patient it becomes harder to justify keeping the patient alive.
2. Where advanced medical equipment and medical procedure is in short supply, medical staff are sometimes faced with the problem of who should continue to access the care. A typical problem in this country arises when a visitor to the country requires dialysis when no such procedure is available in the country of origin.
3. As the number of people continuing to believe in traditional religious commandments progressively diminishes, situational ethics starts to appear more attractive. For example the right-to-life campaigns may correctly represent the views of the campaigners but if they are a minority in the community, as long as democracy is the chosen method of determining law they can no longer expect automatic right of final influence. Because some of the concepts behind such campaigns such as a belief in the sanctity of the soul are difficult to share with those outside the common belief system, appeals to logic and common ethical beliefs then become more important.
4. As an increasing number of countries and states ease up their controls on euthanasia it becomes more problematic to assume that a local law is stopping those who might for example travel to access the mercy killing or assisted suicide. From 1937 on according to Swiss penal code, suicide has not been a crime and assisting suicide is a crime, if and only if the one assisting has personal gain from the outcome. Northern territory of Australia was the first to legalize euthanasia in 1995 (and first to repeal the act in 1997). In the USA the state of Oregon legalized patient assisted suicide in 1997. Both the Netherlands in 2001 and Belgium in 2002 have legalized euthanasia.
In reality even the law does not prevent individual doctors deciding for themselves what they believe is the most appropriate outcome to be for individual patients. In 2004 a New Zealand study conducted by Kay Mitchell from the Department of Psychology at Auckland University and a British clinical psychology professor, Dr Glynn Owens put a series of questions to a number of physicians relating to whether or not the doctors actually sanctioned euthanasia (mercy killing). The questions were answered by doctors protected by anonymity and the results suggested that although mercy killing was illegal and considered tantamount to murder under the law a staggering 693 physicians admitted to hastening the deaths of patients, presumably in the full knowledge that in so doing they were breaking the law. Perhaps even more revealing, of these 380 were cases where the patient was not consulted. Although the doctors involved explained that in most such cases the patient was too ill to be in a position to discuss their position the authors of the report ventured the opinion that their position was at best morally dubious. Of more concern, at least in the eyes of some, amongst the sample there were also 88 cases where the patient was adjudged to be capable of making such a decision and were not consulted. Wellington, New Zealand (LifeNews.com)
Lest anyone might have missed the point Mitchell and Owens put the matter bluntly in their paper, “Legal or not, physician-assisted death is an international reality and New Zealand is no exception with such actions occurring in an apparently palliative rich environment.”
Attempts to change the law in New Zealand are periodically attempted but thus far euthanasia is still listed as a crime under the Crimes Act.
This is an area of active debate in this country and various bioethics review groups are helping sort out some of the key decision areas. Thus far the various Churches are not in a position to present a common mind on the topic. Because Church membership is drawn from all sectors of society the complete range of beliefs on the topic is also represented in the various congregations and within the various denominations. In very approximate terms we can probably say that the right to life groups agitating for the retention of opposition to euthanasia are drawn largely from those who might be described as conservative churches whereas those supporting the death with dignity are more often associated with those of a more liberal persuasion.