Euthanasia has always been a very difficult topic to discuss. It has been a source of controversy in the world from the very conceptualization of the term. Euthanasia is when someone with severe pain or a terminal illness is assisted in taking their own life, as a way to have a ‘peaceful’ death. Over the past few years in the United States, states have been slowly legalizing medically assisted suicide, with strict regulations. The topic of euthanasia can be very divisive due to everyone having their own beliefs and morals. From my perspective, as an individual and as a nursing student, euthanasia should not be legalized.
Euthanasia involves a physician physically providing the lethal dose to a patient. In the United States, some states accept assisted suicide, where physicians are providing the medication to the patient, but the patient takes it themselves, without physical assistance from another person. Assisted suicide is only one step away from being euthanasia. Some of these states supporting physician-assisted suicide include Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, Vermont, Colorado, Montana and D.C.
From the first notion of euthanasia people have been divided on the topic. As a society, the United States has struggled around the discussion of suicide and mental health. Now, in 2020, the topic of purposefully having a medical professional take the life of their patient at the patient’s request is staring us right in the face.
One potential social consequence of legalizing euthanasia in the United States is that we would be devaluing human life at the end of life. At the end stage of life, many people can die comfortably, peacefully and with dignity, through hospice care. In relation to euthanasia, the United States is relatively behind other countries around the world. For example, in the Netherlands they have legalized the right to euthanize children with terminal illnesses. Another social consequence would include the decreased protection of people with poor access to healthcare. The vulnerable population, including the elderly, poor and minority groups who might not have access to healthcare treatments or support that could rid the need for euthanasia.
In the United States, when one requests physician-assisted suicide where it is legal, there are a number of criteria that person must meet to gain access to the lethal medication dose. This involves being 18 years or older, being a resident of said legal state, being qualified as mentally competent to consent and having the ability to self-administer the medication. They also need to be terminally ill, meaning they only have six months or less to live. In the United States, it is illegal for a physician to prescribe the medication for assistive suicide when someone is unable to consent. In other places around the world this is not necessarily true, especially in relation to involuntary euthanasia. Some examples of this are giving euthanasia to someone with dementia or giving it to a child, which has been seen in other countries.
Some people feel that euthanasia can have some benefits, all of which are not true. For someone suffering from a terminal illness or severe pain, euthanasia is thought to bring about a more ‘dignified’ and ‘peaceful’ death; however, there are better options. Euthanasia is not necessary with improved access to palliative care. Palliative care helps people who have chronic or terminal illnesses with everyday activities, staying comfortable and hospice for end of life. With hospice, someone can still have a peaceful and dignified death, with high-quality hands-on care. Another drawback is that the reasoning behind a person’s decision to seek euthanasia may make euthanasia not the best choice. They could be doing it out of guilt because of a potential financial or emotional strain on their family. This could be better addressed with case management and different therapeutic techniques.
Some people feel euthanasia respects an individual’s right to make their own choices based on their beliefs, and not off of others; but, it is a double-edged sword. People have the right to choose, but when euthanasia goes against what makes good medicine good, it will have negative consequences. Those negative consequences include a slippery slope in the ethical standards of medicine. Saying ‘yes’ to euthanasia for terminal illnesses and chronic pain could lead into other areas where said person could actually live for many more years in comfort.
There are multiple problems with legalizing euthanasia in the United States. First and foremost, even if there are strict laws, people can still abuse euthanasia. There was one story when a woman in the Netherlands had dementia, and she legally wrote down her wish for euthanasia before her dementia advanced. This person then resisted when the doctor tried to give the lethal dose, possibly due to her dementia, or she changed her mind. The doctor had her restrained and gave the lethal dose anyways. This was euthanasia without consent, which was deemed unethical.
As a nursing student, I have been taught to do no harm. For physicians, this is especially evident in the Hippocratic Oath, which has many variations, but the same key messages. The original Hippocratic Oath states: “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.”
In one article I read, a doctor reflected on a time his patient asked him to kill them as they were dying in the Intensive Care Unit. The doctor refused, and the patient thanked the doctor for the extra time he was given. During this time the doctor and nurse had taken the time to sit down with the patient who was dying by himself and brought him peace before his passing.
Euthanasia in its own right is a medical Pandora’s box. When you open it, it cannot be closed again. It might have a few positives, but it also has plenty of negatives. I personally do not think euthanasia should be legalized due to what could further develop after the box is opened. The question of the legalization of euthanasia impacts the present and future, and with that in mind, we should all look within ourselves and have an open discussion before legalizing euthanasia.