The word euthanasia means a gentle and easy death. In practice, it is the deliberate ending of a human life for compassionate reasons. At present, it is illegal in the UK and carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Assisted suicide is perhaps the most well-known and controversial form of euthanasia, in which the patient takes the fatal overdose themselves as opposed to a doctor administering it, but there are various other forms too. For example, active euthanasia involves taking action to make a person die quicker, such as supplying them with lethal drugs and voluntary euthanasia is where the afflicted person requests that their life is ended.
Non-voluntary euthanasia involves an incapacitated person unable to make the decision for themselves and someone else deciding on their behalf. Alternatives to euthanasia include hospice care, where the patient is looked after by qualified staff and palliative drugs may be administered to minimise pain and suffering. Staff can discuss the prospect of death with the patient and any fears they may have as well as provide support to the family.
One of the most common arguments in favour of euthanasia is the compassionate argument. Supporters of euthanasia argue that everyone has the right to die with dignity and no one should be forced to live a painful and prolonged life against their wishes. This argument stresses that people’s bodies are their own and they have the right to exercise control over it, provided their actions do not abuse the rights of others. This argument believes governments do not have the right to pass legislation that limits the ability of people to decide what happens to their bodies.
This argument also makes provisions for the families and friends of the patient who will be spared months and even years of seeing their loved ones deteriorate irreversibly until they inevitably die. The UK is a nation of animal lovers and pro-euthanasia campaigners point to the regularity of pets being put down when nothing more can be done to treat them. They argue that this same compassion should be extended to people.
The other main argument in favour of euthanasia is the pragmatic argument. This emphasises that certain medical practices currently being used legally are euthanasia in all but name. The most common example of this in the UK is a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order, where the patient may request that doctors do not attempt to revive them or otherwise administer potentially life-saving drugs if they go into cardiac arrest. The thrust of the pragmatic argument is that if practices like this are already in use, the process of legalising euthanasia is a logic as opposed to drastic step to make.
From a similar pragmatic viewpoint, another argument states that the cost of keeping a terminally ill person alive for an indefinite period of time can be expensive and that euthanasia would free up resources to treat patients who have a better chance of recovery and to research cures for diseases that are presently incurable.
Perhaps the most prominent argument against euthanasia is the religious argument. This postulates that human life is the creation of God and therefore life is sacred and that only God can determine when a human life ends. This is what is known as the sanctity of life. Proponents of this argument assert that euthanasia or any other premature ending of a human life is defying the will of God and is therefore sinful. Whilst this argument is most commonly voiced in the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths, non-religious people may feel that euthanasia serves to ‘devalue’ the importance of life and decrease society’s respect for it.
Another common argument against the legalisation of euthanasia is the fear of the precedent it may set. Proponents of this argument determine that a society that permits voluntary euthanasia may in time shift its views to allow involuntary euthanasia. Additionally, supporters of this argument fear that people who require long-term care or those with severe disabilities may feel pressure to unburden their carers or families by seeking euthanasia or that children may psychologically pressure their ill parents to opt for euthanasia so that they may claim their inheritance or other monetary benefits.
A third argument against the legalisation of abortion is the medical ethics argument. This involves concerns that euthanasia requires doctors to abandon their primary concern for human life and, over time, could grow to become such an everyday task that doctors may lose compassion for certain patient groups including the elderly, the disabled and the terminally ill.
Concerns also exist over whether the patient may mistrust their doctor and come to believe that they are simply looking for ways to kill them off instead of helping to make them better. Another argument is that legalising euthanasia will dampen enthusiasm for the search to find new cures and treatments for terminal illnesses. The thrust of the medical ethics argument is that trust between the doctor and patient will be eroded and eventually break down.
The debate over euthanasia has been waged for many years in the United Kingdom. Celebrities such as the creator of Discworld, Sir Terry Pratchett, have strongly advocated for it on account of suffering from their own long-term illnesses. There have been occasional attempts to introduce legislation in Parliament to legalise assisted suicide in the case of the terminally ill, but so far none have been successful.
The only option for British citizens wishing to end their lives via assisted suicide at the time of writing is to travel to a country such as Switzerland where it is legal. While certain European countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain have legalised assisted suicide and euthanasia in recent years, in the UK it looks fairly certain that there is no immediate answer in sight.
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