A Good End
Written by: Steven Luper
Do We Have the Right to Die?
This week, Steven Luper, the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Life and Death, analyzes the controversial question of euthanasia. Should the decision to die be left in the hands of the suffering? And should we help them to carry out their wishes?
Not long ago I asked my veterinarian to my house to euthanize my dog Mara, a Rottweiler who was about 13 years old. She had had three leg surgeries, at various times, to repair blown tendons. She also had surgery to relieve great pain caused by spinal illness. From these procedures she quickly rebound, and dashed through life with boundless enthusiasm. The operations took their toll, however, later in her life. By the time she was 13 her arthritis was so painful she could scarcely get up, let alone walk. Eventually she wasn’t able to get up at all. Her pain was too severe. It was also painful for me and my wife when we called the vet. We loved Mara, but killing her was obviously the right thing to do. We’d hoped that the fates would not put us in the situation of having to choose whether to euthanize her, but we were not that lucky. Still, death for Mara was astonishingly quick and utterly painless. The vet administered a dose of barbiturate, which immediately produced unconsciousness, followed by death; one moment she was alive, and the next she was gone.
Unfortunately, you and I may well find ourselves in Mara’s situation—suffering from afflictions that cannot be alleviated—only for us matters will be far worse because we know about the horrors that lie in the future. We cannot seek out a medical professional who will give us a quick, merciful death. The law forbids voluntary euthanasia—it forbids killing those who request euthanasia upon seeing, correctly, that living on would be bad for them.
The law forbids voluntary euthanasia—it forbids killing those who request euthanasia upon seeing, correctly, that living on would be bad for them.
Consider the desperate people who asked Jack Kevorkian to help them die. These people were terminally ill and suffering grievously. Except in the case of the last of them, Kevorkian helped them to kill themselves, knowing that the law did not allow it. He made sure that they had made an informed decision to die, then he gave them further time to reconsider, and finally he set up an apparatus that allowed them to give themselves a lethal dose of drugs. The last person he helped was Thomas Youk. Youk was a victim of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). He could barely breathe or swallow. His condition terrified him. What Kevorkian did for Youk was different from what he did for the others. Instead of setting up an apparatus that would allow Youk to kill himself, Kevorkian administered the fatal injection himself. In doing so, he crossed the line from assisting in suicide, for which he was never convicted (though put on trial repeatedly), to euthanasia. He was imprisoned for second degree murder, and released only after promising he would not help anyone else die.
Is this really what we want the law to do?
Many will respond: yes of course! They will speak indignantly about Hitler and his appalling deeds—how, under the euphemism “euthanasia,” he murdered handicapped children, followed by people with mental impairment, followed by Jewish people and others. Critics of euthanasia will speak of slippery slopes, leading inexorably from legalized euthanasia down to the abyss, to Nazi Germany. Among the many, many tragic legacies of Hitler is the prevalence of this sorry reasoning, which is used by many opponents of euthanasia: since Hitler murdered people under the pretense of ‘euthanizing’ them, then it is unacceptable to consider any sort of euthanasia under any circumstances.
Actually, what Kevorkian did was not objectionable. It was praiseworthy. There is a good case for saying that, in certain circumstances, assisting in suicide is morally permissible, and in cases in which assisted suicide is permissible, so is voluntary euthanasia. What is more, when these are morally permissible, there is also a good case for the claim that they should be legal. The matter is complicated; it involves many considerations about what makes life good for us, and what detracts from the value of life. (Many of the relevant issues are discussed in the Cambridge Companion to Life and Death, which will appear in print soon.) Assisting in suicide and euthanasia should be legal for physicians when requested by those who see, correctly, that living on would be bad for them. At the end of the day, I wish I had, as an option, the sort of death I gave to Mara. I wish you had that option too.