One of the most controversial issues during the last few years is the right to assisted suicide. It is a burning topic that raises debates all over the world, and patients with terminal illnesses insist on been given the right to choose whether they can end their life, with the help of a physician or not. Those against point mainly to their religious beliefs and morals to reject assisted suicide. Physicians are also divided on this matter because, to them; the line between providing relief from dying and killing is extremely thin and vaguely defined. No matter how viewpoints collide, the right of those that suffer and experience severe pains, due to their irreversible, incurable health condition (see final stages of life), should be undisputable, regardless of the sadness it creates to everybody around those patients, and probably the patients themselves.
We may not have chosen to be born, but we certainly have the right to choose how we die, especially if living has become unendurable, due to pain and suffering. Just as much as people have the right to pursuit their happiness, they should have the right to make critical decisions for their lives. If there are laws that vindicate the right to decide, then it is insane to want to prosecute those that want to implement these laws (Cotton, 1995 p.364). Patients with terminal illnesses should have the right to die with as much dignity as possible, and requesting for assisted suicide is a form of exercising their autonomy. Everybody wants the right to decide for themselves, and the terminally ill want to have a final active voice in their lives (Dworkin, 1993 p. 239).
Some people believe that doctors should keep their Hippocratic Oath and avoid participating in any assisted suicide. Interestingly, only a few medical schools now use the Hippocratic Oath (Barnard, 1980 p.28). The Hippocratic Oath asks the doctors to ensure the patient’s healthy living, relieve from pain, and not administrate deadly medicine. However, with cancer patients the oath is rather inapplicable, because the medicine used in chemotherapy puts the body under excessive suffering, with all the known side effects of chemotherapy, which include vomiting, nausea, hair loss, and pain, among others. If the medicine does that to the body, it is considered deadly, therefore, the doctors asking their patients to undergo chemotherapy are, in fact, violating their Hippocratic Oath. Yet, they still recommend chemotherapy and will do so for many years to come, because it is for the greater good of the patient. With that in mind, why can’t a patient with a terminal illness have the right to end their life without having to undergo all that suffering and pain? If a patient is going to die, due to their medical condition, no medical equipment or high doses of medicine will be able to help them escape the inevitable. As Barnard (1980) said “To use such measures in the terminally ill, with no expectancy of a return to health, is generally inappropriate and is—therefore—bad medicine by definition” (p. 22).
There are those that fear that advocating assisted suicide will raise other issues, such as abuse. To them, legalizing assisted suicide, might lead to doctors taking advantage of their patients and encourage them to end their life with assisted suicide, for financial reasons. Truth is such incidents could indeed occur, and it lies in the doctor’s sense of responsibility, to pick the right side, which is to provide salvation and relief to those that really want and ask for it. Again, the choice of assisted suicide should be the patient’s and no one else’s, even if doctors or family members want something else, other than assisted suicide, for the patient’s best interest. Also, if assisted suicide is legalized, laws will have to be implemented to regulate the practice of assisted suicide and avoid abuses of any kind, while opposing punishments for those that break the law, at the same time (Smith, 1993 p.409). Of course, this means that assisted suicide will be legalized after all medical records document the necessity for it.
Assisted suicide is everybody’s right. Perhaps, Judge Steven Reinhardt’s way to rule on assisted suicide is paradigmatic. He said that “a competent, terminally-ill adult, having lived nearly the full measure of his life, has a strong liberty interest in choosing a dignified and humane death rather than being reduced at the end of his existence to a childlike state of helplessness, diapered, sedated, incompetent” (Beck, 1996 p.36). In other words, it is an inherent right of every individual to choose the way he/she is going to die when terminally ill. If they want not to suffer, then they should be provided with a choice.
They physical suffering of the patient is unbearable to the patient’s family members, both emotionally and financially. According to Dworkin (1993) “The cost of maintaining [a terminally ill person]. . . has been estimated as ranging from about two thousand to ten thousand dollars a month” (p. 187). Unfortunately, medical technology is not always enough to save a patient’s life. However, the costs attached to try to maintain in life a terminally ill patient, either with medication or hospitalization, or both, are extremely high. Only a few wealthy terminally ill patients can afford to pay the costs of their treatments so to prologue the little life that is left in them. For all other patients that do not have the resources to pay for their treatment and hospitalization, the responsibility lies in their family members. Unquestionably, no family ever considers about the high costs when their loved one is alive. They do whatever they can, to keep their precious member alive for as long as possible; but when the person dies, families are left behind to gather their pieces and struggle with the huge hospital bills. No wonder many families find themselves at the edge of financial breakdown. If someone would ask the patients themselves about this situation, it is highly likely that they would not want their families to suffer such burdens, so to keep them alive, because it was pointless, given that they would die in a short time frame (Dworkin, 1993 p.193). They only wish for consolidation and a peaceful death, and by forcing their families into such an uncomfortable and difficult position will not provide them with anything close to consolidation. In this case, if a terminally ill patients decides to save their families the financial debt from pilled medical bills, it should be their right to go on with it. Dying in peace and with a relaxed soul is far more important than anything else, and it is each one’s right to decide the best means to achieve that.
Assisted suicide and whether it is a right or not of those terminally ill will keep on creating controversy for many years to come. No matter what the reason to oppose assisted suicide to patients with fatal diseases, one should be considerate to the patient’s real needs and desires, rather than stick to religious beliefs and morals.
Undoubtedly, medical technology has provided patients with many benefits and chances to lead a healthy life. Of course, this applies to those that have a chance of surviving, even slight. For the terminally ill, though, medical technology will just make sure the suffering of those patients is prolonged, as well as their constant agony and pain. It is the terminally ill patients’ right to ask for assisted suicide and proceed with it, as it is everybody’s right to make choices for the best of our interest. Assisted suicide can ensure a peaceful passage from life to death to those with terminal illnesses, with dignity, and without forcing their families to bear the financial burdens that come from prolonged hospitalization and medication. Plus assisted suicide helps the terminally ill to not having to bear excessive and constant pain and suffering. Like Judge Reinhardt said, if terminally ill adults have lived the full measure of their life, it is an obligation to ensure they have a humane death, rather than putting them in childlike states of incompetence and helplessness. After all, if a patient wishes to close their book of life in a certain way, it is nobody’s right to deprive them of doing so.
Barnard, Christaan (1980), Good Life/Good Death. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1980.
Beck, Joan (1996), Answers to Right-to-Die Questions Hard. Houston Chronicle. Late ed.: 36.
Cotton, Paul (1995), Medicine’s Position Is Both Pivotal and Precarious in Assisted Suicide Debate. The Journal of the American Association. p. 363-64.
Dworkin, Ronald (1993), Life’s Dominion. New York: Knopf.
Smith, Cheryl (1995), Should Active Euthanasia Be Legalized: Yes. American Bar Association Journal. Rpt. in CQ Researcher 5.1 (1995): 409.