Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide
Whose life is it, anyway? Euthanasia is a word that means good death. Euthanasia normally implies that the act must be initiated by the person who wishes to commit suicide. But, some people define euthanasia to include both voluntary and involuntary termination of life. Physician assisted suicide is when a physician supplies information and/or the means of committing suicide (lethal dose of sleeping pills or carbon monoxide gas) to a person, so that they can easily terminate their own life.
For over 700 years, the Anglo American common law has been punished otherwise disapproved of both suicide and assisting suicide. In the 13th century, Henry de Bracton, one of the first legal treatise writers, observed that “just as man may commit a felony by slaying another so may he do so by slaying himself”. For the most part, the early American colonies adopted the common law approach. For example, the legislators of the Providence Plantations, which would later become Rhode Island, declared, in 1647, that “self murder is by all agreed to be the most unnatural, and it is by this present Assembly declared to be that, wherein he that doth it, kills himself out of a premeditated hatred against own life or other humor…his own goods and chattels are the king’s custom, but not his debts nor lands……” Virginia also required ignominious burial for suicides, and their estates were forfeit to the crown.
Over time, however, the American colonies abolished these harsh common law penalties. William Penn abandoned the criminal forfeiture sanction in Pennsylvania in 1701. And other colonies eventually followed this example. In 1850, the California legislature adopted the English common law, under which assisting suicide was a crime. The provision adopted in 1874 provided that “every person who deliberately aids or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide, is guilty of a felony.”
There are two main arguments offered by Christians, and those of other faiths, that advise against an individual seeking suicide, for whatever reason: Life is a gift form God, and that “ each individual is its steward.” Thus, only God can start a life, and only God should be allowed to end one. An individual who commits suicide is committing a sin. Christians believe that God does not send us any experience that we cannot handle. God supports people in suffering. To actively seek an end to one’s life would represent a lack of trust in God’s promise. Of course there are a number of Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, secularists, non-Christians and liberal Christians who do not accept these theologically based arguments. They believe that each person has autonomy over their own life. Persons whose quality of life is nonexistent should have the right to decide to commit suicide, and to seek assistance if necessary. They also believe that sometimes a terminal illness is so painful that it causes life to be an unbearable burden; death can represent a relief of intolerable pain.
Some terminally ill patients are in intractable pain and/or experience an intolerably poor quality of life. They would prefer to end their life rather than continue until their body finally just gives up. Does the state have the right to deny them their wish?
Suicide is a legal act that is theoretically available to all. But a person who is terminally ill or who is in a hospital setting or is disabled may not be able to exercise this option – either because of the mental or physically limitations. In effect, they are being discriminated against because of their disability. Should they be given the same access to the suicide option as able-bodied people have?