One of the landmark cases that involve euthanasia is that of Karen
Ann Quinlan. Quinlan, a twenty-one year old New Jersey resident, overdosed
on pills and alcohol in 1975. She was rushed to the hospital where her
physical condition gradually deteriorated to a vegetative state. The
doctors determined she had no chance of recovery. Before the coma Karen
said that if anything ever happened that would leave her physically and
mentally incompetent, without any chance of recovery, she would not want to
be kept alive by “extraordinary medical procedures,” notes Derek Humphry.
Karen’s parents sought religious counsel from their priest. They were told
that the Catholic religion allows the removal of extraordinary care if the
patient was in a terminal condition. Karen’s parents requested she be
removed from the respirator. The hospital denied their request. The
Quinlans then directed their request to the court. The superior court
denied their request. They took their request to the New Jersey Supreme
court where the decision was reversed. Karen was removed from the
respirator. To everyone’s surprise, Karen began breathing on her own and
lived another ten years (Humphry 107).
The Quinlan case brought to the forefront patients’ desire to die a
proud, quiet death. It also brought to the forefront the complications
caused by the advancement of medical technology (“Euthanasia”27).
Euthanasia has been practiced in Eastern and Western culture since the
beginning of civilization. The capability of medical technology to extend
life (as demonstrated by the Quinlan case) has made the issue of euthanasia
more complicated. Individuals should be allowed to “die with dignity” in
the event of terminal illness if he or she wants it. Terminating a
patient’s life is much more merciful than allowing him or her to die a slow
painful death from illness. Those who oppose legalizing euthanasia and
assisted suicide say that this could lead to involuntary killing of the
aged and infirm. I agree that there may be danger of abuse and that the
vulnerable need to be protected; therefore, I support passing legislation
that monitors and regulates physician assisted suicide. The demand for
legislation in support of legalized euthanasia for the terminally ill has
been an issue since the beginning of the century. According to Derek
Humphry in Ohio in 1906, a Bill proposing to legalize euthanasia was
presented to the Ohio legislature. The bill was defeated by nearly 80% of
those voting. Opponents said the bill would have presented away for doctors
to cover up their mistakes. Opponents also say that the bill would have
provided a means for families to get rid of relatives who were a nuisance
and give fortune seekers a shortcut to inheritance. Although the bill was
defeated, the idea it generated still lives on (Humphry 12).
Opponents of euthanasia often refer to the atrocities and attitudes in
Nazi Germany for reasons not to support euthanasia. An article in the
Progressive describes the essay “Permitting the Destruction of Unworthy
Life” written in Germany in 1920, by Alfred Hoche. In the essay he
proposes getting rid of the “‘dead weight existence of incurables in
Germany.'” By “‘incurable'” he meant those who were mentally and
emotionally disabled (Who 34). When the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933,
as explained in “Euthanasia and the Third Reich” an article in HISTORY
TODAY, they took Alfred Hoche’s concept of euthanasia and used it to
rationalize sterilization of those with “hereditary” illnesses. They also
used the “euthanasia programme” to kill mentally and physically handicapped
children and adults. Eventually they used this policy as justification for
killing Jews, homosexuals, and others (Burleigh 11). Many believe that this
kind of murder can happen again if euthanasia is legalized. However, the
senseless, atrocious killings in Germany cannot be compared to carefully
regulated policies that will allow euthanasia in selective cases. Such an
extreme comparison should not prevent a merciful euthanasia policy for the
terminally ill in unbearable pain who request it. As people began
forgetting World War II and the atrocities of Nazi Germany, interest in
“assisted suicide” and euthanasia was restored. To understand the
controversy of euthanasia and assisted suicide, one must understand the
difference between the two terms. Euthanasia involves the administering of
the life taking measure; whereas, assisted suicide provides the means or
instructions to the patient who intends to kill him or herself. Physicians
who are used to saving lives are being asked to end patients lives. The
request for “death with dignity” is very popular.
In a 1991 Gallop Poll, nearly 60 percent of those interviewed said
that a person has the “moral right” to end his or her life when the person
“has a disease that is incurable.” Sixty-five percent said “yes” to the
When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors
should be allowed by law to end the patient’s life by some painless means
if the family requests it (Fear, 4)?
The legality of physician-assisted suicide is one of the main reasons
physicians hesitate to support assisted suicide. According to an article in
the New England Journal of Medicine, in the United States, any action that
causes death of a person or causes that person to kill himself is illegal.
Doctors are prohibited from intentionally taking someone’s life without the
patient’s approval. As of 14 July 1994, 30 states had criminalized
physician assisted suicide (Regulating 119). However, of those physicians
who have practiced euthanasia or assisted suicide few have been brought to
trial and none have been convicted. As awareness increased on the topic of
“death with dignity,” it was no longer just a medical issue it became a
political issue as well.
In 1991, congress enacted the Patient Self Determination Act. The
Patient Self Determination Act required hospitals and nursing homes to
inform patients that they have the right to refuse medication (Aging, 54).
As a result patients began refusing medication and their pain and suffering
increased. Although the Patient Self Determination caused controversy and
complications it was America’s first step in reform of euthanasia practices.
Although America’s Patient Self Determination Act provide patients with
some freedom of choice, other western cultures who are practicing
euthanasia or assisted suicide for the terminally ill are taking more
aggressive measures but are still protecting those who may be vulnerable to
abuse. For example, In Sweden steps are taken to insure that people who
are not terminally ill are not given advice and assistance in their efforts
to commit suicide (Birenbaum 30). The Netherlands’ practice of euthanasia
is usually the focus when universal policies on euthanasia are being
considered. Dutch physicians have been practicing euthanasia for many years.
Despite euthanasia being illegal, Dutch society supports it. The policy on
euthanasia in the Netherlands requires three conditions must be met: the
patient must make the request insistently and repeatedly of his desire to
die, more than one doctor must have attended the patient, and the patient
must be terminally ill and suffering from severe physical or mental pain.
The physician then gives the patient a lethal injection of barbiturates to
provide permanent relief (Birenbaum 30). On 8 December 1994, the residents
of Oregon passed a law similar to the Netherlands’ practice of euthanasia.
Voters in Oregon passed Americas’ first euthanasia law. The law will
legalize the prescription of lethal doses of medicine to terminally ill
patients who desire to end their lives. The policy is similar to that in
the Netherlands. The policy requires that the request be made three times,
two oral request and one written request. There must be fifteen days
between the first request and the second request.