Chapter 11 Euthanasia

Our first topic in applied ethics is the topic of euthanasia (and/or physician assisted suicide – these are not really the same thing, as we will be seeing shortly, although for convenience we will use the term “euthanasia” to cover both). The topic of euthanasia is not only a topic debated often in the public arena, but a central topic in the branch of ethics known as bio-medical ethics. The reasons for the importance of this topic are pretty obvious – the debate about euthanasia arises from the dilemmas of aging and dying in a world in which medical technology often permits us to continue to live in spite of major medical problems brought on by aging, disease or misfortune. Modern medicine enables us to prolong life as never before, but in some cases prolongation of life ceases to be such an obviously good thing. So the question arises as to whether it is ethically permissible, in certain kinds of situations, to choose to die, to help others to die, or to even cause them to die.

The word “euthanasia” itself comes from two Greek words meaning literally “good” (eu) and “death” (thanatos). Some of the questions that arise in connection with euthanasia have to do with this literal meaning:

  • Is there any such thing as a good death, or is death just plain bad?
  • What exactly would constitute a good way to die?
  • Who, if anyone, can or should decide when the time is right for a human life to end?
  • Should medical professionals be involved in any way in decisions to end people’s lives, or should they only be permitted to try to prolong life?

The first three questions aside, for now, it is perhaps the last of these questions that has led to modern controversies about euthanasia. Modern medicine has given doctors enormous power to prolong life through radical surgical procedures and life sustaining technology that can keep some people in desperate medical conditions alive indefinitely. Thus medicine has had to confront a new dilemma: should doctors do whatever they possibly can to preserve life, in keeping with their traditional role, or should they accept moral limitations on this power to keep alive. Formerly doctors faced primarily technical limitations on what they could do, and so the chief moral responsibility they had was not to harm patients. But now that those limitations have been greatly reduced they find themselves face to face with questions about the value of life – is it worthwhile to live whatever the cost in medical resources or individual suffering? Are there some lives that are no longer worth living, even though the technical means of extending them are available?