Singer: Euthanasia

A2 Macroeconomics Textbook


Voluntary Euthanasia

Most of the groups currently campaigning for changes in the law to allow euthanasia are campaigning for voluntary euthanasia - that is, euthanasia carried out at the request of the person killed.

Sometimes voluntary euthanasia is scarcely distinguishable from assisted suicide. In Jean's Way, Derek Humphry has told how his wife Jean, when dying of cancer, asked him to provide her with the means to end her life swiftly and without pain. They had seen the situation coming and discussed it beforehand. Derek obtained some tablets and gave them to Jean, who took them and died soon afterwards.

Dr Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan pathologist, went one step further when he built a 'suicide machine' to help terminally ill people commit suicide. His machine consisted of a metal pole with three different bottles attached to a tube of the kind used to provide an intravenous drip. The doctor inserts the tube in the patient's vein, but at this stage only a harmless saline solution can pass through it. The patient may then flip a switch, which will allow a coma-inducing drug to come through the tube; this is automatically followed by a lethal drug contained in the third bottle. Dr Kevorkian announced that he was pre- pared to make the machine available to any terminally ill patient who wished to use it. (Assisting suicide is not against the law in Michigan.) In June 1990, Janet Adkins, who was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, but still competent to make the decision to end her life, contacted Dr Kevorkian and told him of her wish to die, rather than go through the slow and progressive deterioration that the disease involves. Dr Kevorkian was in attendance while she made use of his machine, and then re- ported Janet Adkins's death to the police. He was subsequently charged with murder, but the judge refused to allow the charge to proceed to trial, on the grounds that Janet Adkins had caused her own death. The following year Dr Kevorkian made his device available to two other people, who used it in order to end their lives.

In other cases, people wanting to die may be unable to kill themselves. In 1973 George Zygmaniak was injured in a motorcycle accident near his home in New Jersey. He was taken to hospital, where he was found to be totally paralysed from the neck down. He was also in considerable pain. He told his doctor and his brother, Lester, that he did not want to live in this condition. He begged them both to kill him. Lester questioned the doctor and hospital staff about George's prospects of recovery: he was told that they were nil. He then smuggled a gun into the hospital, and said to his brother: 'I am here to end your pain, George. Is it all right with you?' George, who was now unable to speak because of an operation to assist his breathing, nodded affirmatively. Lester shot him through the temple.

The Zygmaniak case appears to be a clear instance of voluntary euthanasia, although without some of the procedural safeguards that advocates of the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia propose. For instance, medical opinions about the patient's prospects of recovery were obtained only in an informal manner. Nor was there a careful attempt to establish, before independent witnesses, that George's desire for death was of a fixed and rational kind, based on the best available information about his situation. The killing was not carried out by a doctor. An injection would have been less distressing to others than shooting. But these choices were not open to Lester Zygrnaniak, for the law in New Jersey, as in most other places, regards mercy killing as murder, and if he had made his plans known, he would not have been able to carry them out.

Euthanasia can be voluntary even if a person is not able, as Jean Humphry, Janet Adkins, and George Zygmaniak were able, to indicate the wish to die right up to the moment the tablets are swallowed, the switch thrown, or the trigger pulled. A person may, while in good health, make a written request for euthanasia if, through accident or illness, she should come to be incapable of making or expressing a decision to die, in pain, or without the use of her mental faculties, and there is no reasonable hope of recovery. In killing a person who has made such a request, who has re-affirmed it from time to time, and who is now in one of the states described, one could truly claim to be acting with her consent.

There is now one country in which doctors can openly help their patients to die in a peaceful and dignified way. In the Netherlands, a series of court cases during the 1980s upheld a doctor's right to assist a patient to die, even if that assistance amounted to giving the patient a lethal injection. Doctors in the Netherlands who comply with certain guidelines (which will be described later in this chapter) can now quite openly carry out euthanasia and can report this on the death certificate with- out fear of prosecution. It has been estimated that about 2,300 deaths each year result from euthanasia carried out in this way.

Involuntary Euthanasia

I shall regard euthanasia as involuntary when the person killed is capable of consenting to her own death, but does not do so, either because she is not asked, or because she is asked and chooses to go on living. Admittedly this definition lumps two different cases under one heading. There is a significant difference between killing someone who chooses to go on living and killing someone who has not consented to being killed, but if asked, would have consented. In practice, though, it is hard to imagine cases in which a person is capable of consenting and would have consented if asked, but was not asked. For why not ask? Only in the most bizarre situations could one conceive of a reason for not obtaining the consent of a person both able and willing to consent.

Killing someone who has not consented to being killed can properly be regarded as euthanasia only when the motive for killing is the desire to prevent unbearable suffering on the part of the person killed. It is, of course, odd that anyone acting from this motive should disregard the wishes of the person for whose sake the action is done. Genuine cases of involuntary euthanasia appear to be very rare.

Non-voluntary Euthanasia

These two definitions leave room for a third kind of euthanasia. If a human being is not capable of understanding the choice between life and death, euthanasia would be neither voluntary nor involuntary, but non-voluntary. Those unable to give con- sent would include incurably ill or severely disabled infants, and people who through accident, illness, or old age have permanently lost the capacity to understand the issue involved, with- out having previously requested or rejected euthanasia in these circumstances.

Several cases of non-voluntary euthanasia have reached the courts and the popular press. Here is one example. Louis Repouille had a son who was described as 'incurably imbecile', had been bed-ridden since infancy and blind for five years. According to Repouille: 'He was just like dead all the time.... He couldn't walk, he couldn't talk, he couldn't do anything.' in the end Repouille killed his son with chloroform.

In 1988 a case arose that well illustrates the way in which modern medical technology forces us to make life and death decisions. Samuel Linares, an infant, swallowed a small object that stuck in his windpipe, causing a loss of oxygen to the brain. He was admitted to a Chicago hospital in a coma and placed on a respirator. Eight months later he was still comatose, still on the respirator, and the hospital was planning to move Samuel to a long-term care unit. Shortly before the move, Samuel's parents visited him in the hospital. His mother left the room, while his father produced a pistol and told the nurse to keep away. He then disconnected Samuel from the respirator, and cradled the baby in his arms until he died. When he was sure Samuel was dead, he gave up his pistol and surrendered to police. He was charged with murder, but the grand jury refused to issue a homicide indictment, and he subsequently received a suspended sentence on a minor charge arising from the use of the pistol.
Obviously, such cases raise different issues from those raised by voluntary euthanasia. There is no desire to die on the part of the infant. It may also be questioned whether, in such cases, the death is carried out for the sake of the infant, or for the sake of the family as a whole. If Louis Repouille's son was 'just like dead all the time', then he may have been so profoundly brain- damaged that he was not capable of suffering at all. That is also likely to have been true of the comatose Samuel Linares. In that case, while caring for him would have been a great and no doubt futile burden for the family, and in the Linares case, a drain on the state's limited medical resources as well, the infants were not suffering, and death could not be said to be in, or contrary to, their interests. It is therefore not euthanasia, strictly speaking, as I have defined the term. it might nevertheless be a justifiable ending of a human life.

Since cases of infanticide and non-voluntary euthanasia are the kind of case most nearly akin to our previous discussions of the status of animals and the human fetus, we shall consider them first.

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