Euthanasia: Assisted Suicide Discussion

Euthanasia, otherwise known as mercy killing or assisted suicide, has been a controversial subject for many centuries. Proponents of the practice believe that individual freedoms of choice that exist in life also extend to the end of life. They also argue that the sentiment of humane treatment afforded animals that are terminally ill or injured and are suffering should be given to humans as well. Opponents suggest that euthanasia is a ‘slippery slope’ that would allow increasing instances of coerced suicide, family members pressuring the elderly not to postpone their inevitable demise for financial reasons. The debate centers on individual autonomy, whether or not patients who suffer from extreme pain and have a terminal or degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s, AIDS and multiple sclerosis have the right to an assisted death of the type and time of their own choosing.

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“Active euthanasia occurs when the medical professionals, or another person, deliberately do something that causes the patient to die” (“Ethics”, 2006) A doctor’s involvement in the procedure could be to either prescribe a lethal dose of drugs with the express intent of ending a life or by intravenously inserting a needle into the terminal patient who then activates a switch that administers the fatal dose (Naji et al, 2005). Many terminally ill people choose to end their own life to evade the previously discussed detriments of a terminal illness. Suicide rates are by far the highest among the elderly population for this reason. “If these people are going to commit suicide, which is better, controlled, compassionate doctor-assisted suicide or clumsy attempts like taking sleeping pills, jumping off a building, or firing a bullet into one’s head?” (Messerli, 2007).

“Passive euthanasia occurs when the patient dies because the medical professionals either don’t do something necessary to keep the patient alive, or when they stop doing something that is keeping the patient alive” (“Ethics”, 2006) In the 1970’s it became lawful to draft ‘living wills’ which allows a patient to refuse ‘heroic’ life saving medical assistance in the event they were incapacitated and could only survive by artificial means (Rich, 2001). In other words, it gave the next of kin the right to direct doctors to ‘pull the plug’ if the patient’s condition was considered hopeless, a practice which is now broadly accepted. However, these wills did not eliminate the potential problem of individuals being kept alive for incredibly lengthy periods of time in permanent unconscious states as there were often no provisions for withdrawing nutrition and hydration when no other life support interventions were necessary. “Philosophers say that active euthanasia is morally better because it can be quicker and cleaner, and it may be less painful for the patient” (“Ethics”, 2006).

Only one state, Oregon, and three countries, Switzerland, Belgium and The Netherlands, allow assisted suicide (Hurst & Mauron, 2003). The law in Oregon was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court early last year and was upheld by a vote of six to three. In 2001, President Bush attempted to derail the Oregon law permitting euthanasia stating that assisted suicide wasn’t a ‘legitimate medical purpose.’ The justices, however, were not convinced by Bush’s argument. “Justice Sandra Day O’Connor pointed out that doctors participate in the administration of lethal injections to death row inmates” (Roh, 2006). The Oregon laws are shaped after those in the Netherlands and are designed to ensure second opinions have been consulted and there is an imminent presumption of death within a reasonable time frame of when the procedure is requested (“Court Defends”, 2004). In addition, the patient must make multiple requests for the procedure, all spaced out over a period of weeks and must be willing to administer an overdose of drugs themselves. While there are several individuals who have written against Oregon’s laws, including Lauren O’Brien (2005) and Kay Olson (2007), these are usually addressing abuses in the system or personal cases in which counseling would or should have been able to prevent mistakes. Olson, for instance, details the case of a particular woman who was incompetent to argue for her own case and, through numerous abuses in a system focused upon capitalistic concerns rather than humanitarian ones, was a victim of the Oregon euthanasia laws. O’Brien illustrates how a successful writer might have inadvertently cut short a brilliant career had euthanasia been an option at the time he first suffered a paralyzing accident.

Assisted suicide by physicians and non-physicians has been legal in Switzerland since WWII. In addition, three organizations within the country have been established to aid terminally ill patients. They provide patient counseling as well as the drugs for use in the procedure. Lethal injections, however, are not allowed. The unusual situation in Switzerland holds that assisted suicide is allowed as long as a physician is not a part of the process (Hurst & Mauron, 2003). Euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002. Each case must be reviewed by two physicians before the procedure is carried out by either ingestion or injection. In The Netherlands, euthanasia has been legal for four years but has been tolerated for two decades. The guidelines for physicians handed down from the government include; “the patient must be suffering unbearably and have no hope of improvement, must ask to die and the patient must clearly understand the condition and prognosis (and) a second doctor must agree with the decision to help the patient die” (“The Fight”, 2004).

Opponents of a doctor-assisted suicide law often cite the potential for doctor abuse. However, recent Oregon and European laws demonstrate that reasonable laws can be crafted that prevent abuse and still protect the value of human life. For example, laws could be drafted that requires the approval of two doctors plus a psychologist, a reasonable waiting period, a family members’ written consent and limits the procedure to specific medical conditions.

The word euthanasia is from Greek origin meaning ‘good death.’ Writers of 1700’s Britain referred to euthanasia as a being a preferential method by which to ‘die well’ (“Definition”, 2007). The unfortunate reality is the majority of people in the U.S. die a ‘bad death.’ A study determined that “more often than not, patients died in pain, their desires concerning treatment neglected, after spending 10 days or more in an intensive care unit” (Horgan, 1996). Most Americans (53 percent) believe euthanasia to be not only compassionate but ethically acceptable and 69 percent would support the legalization of euthanasia according to a Gallup Poll conducted in 2004 (“Public Grapples”, 2004). The euthanasia debate embraces compelling and impassioned arguments on both sides of the issue. Proponents of euthanasia are concerned with human suffering. Many diseases such as cancer cause a lingering and excruciatingly painful death. Watching a loved one as they wither away from the disease eating away at their organs is tough enough on family members, but to see them suffer even when drugs are administered is unbearable not to mention what the patient must endure. This emotionally and physically torturous situation is played out in every hospital, every day of the year but serves no purpose. To many, it is unimaginable to allow anyone, for example, a sweet old grandmother who has spent her life caring for others to spend the last six months of their life enduring constant pain, unable to control bodily functions, convulsing, coughing, vomiting, etc. The psychological pain for both the family and patient is unimaginably horrific as well. If grandma were a dog, most all would agree that the only humane option would be to ‘put her to sleep.’ U.S. citizens are guaranteed certain rights but not the right to ‘die with dignity.’ This right is not prohibited by the Constitution but by religious zealots who evidently put the quality of life of a dog above grandmas. Patients suffering from Alzheimer’s may not suffer physical pain but endure a different type of pain and usually for a long period of time. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease causing the patient to ramble incoherently and lose their memory. Many people who led vibrant, active and purposeful lives are remembered by their family members in this state (Messerli, 2007).

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Euthanasia also allows for organs such as livers, hearts and kidneys to be harvested for transplant into otherwise healthy individuals with a potential for many more years of life. While it may be emotionally morbid to think of things in such terms, in a world where medical miracles can occur everyday that permit another human being a chance at a more fulfilling life, these considerations must also be made. In the real world, it is more likely that an individual will opt first to save the young child from an oncoming bus rather than an old man. By the same token, it seems incredible that today’s society would opt to allow a child to die so that a terminal patient might be forced to live a few more agonizing months. This, in effect, is the result of not allowing people to die with dignity.

Works Cited

  1. Court Defends Oregon Euthanasia.” BBC. (2004). Web.
  2. Definition of Euthanasia.” (2007). Web.
  3. “Ethics of Euthanasia.” BBC. (2006)
  4. “(The) Fight for the Right to Die.” CBC News. (2004).
  5. Horgan, John. “Right to Die.” Scientific American. (1996).
  6. Hurst, Samia A. & Mauron, Alex. “Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in Switzerland: Allowing a Role for Non-Physicians.” British Medical Journal. Vol. 326, N. 7383. (2003). pp. 271-273.
  7. Naji, Mostafa H; Lazarine, Neil G. & Pugh, Meredith D. “Euthanasia, the Terminal Patient and the Physician’s Role.” Journal of Religion and Health. Vol. 20, N. 3. (1981). pp. 186-200.
  8. O’Brien, Lauren. “Opposing Legalization of the Right to Die.” Emmitsburg Area Historical Society. (2005). Web.
  9. Olson, Kay. “Euthanasia in Oregon.” The Gimp Parade. (2007). Web.
  10. “Public Grapples With Legality, Morality of Euthanasia.” The Gallup Poll. (2004).
  11. Rich, Ben A. Strange Bedfellows: How Medical Jurisprudence has Influenced Medical Ethics and Medical Practice. New York: Springer. (2001).
  12. Roh, Jane. “Supreme Court Backs Oregon Assisted Suicide Law.” Fox News. (2006).
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