Euthanasia, the act of relieving the prolonged pain and suffering of terminally ill patients by inducing death, has been the subject of controversy for sometime. Dying with dignity, the kind of end we hope for ourselves as well as others, has in some ways become more difficult. With the advancements in medicine having leaped forward within the last 20 years, prolonging life by means of technology has become common place in the medical community. These life-sustaining advances in treatments have brought up moral issues of whether it is the right of an individual to suppress his or her own life-sustaining treatment if they so desire.
Our society has become a youth-worshipping society. It is almost as if we have taken on old-age and death as just another disease that need to be conquered. The fact is, we all die sooner or later. Death is not our enemy. It is as much a part of living as being born.
Traditionally, doctors had the responsibility for deciding what should or should not be done for dying patients. Now, patients, their families, and patient representatives have a say in such decisions.
To understand euthanasia we must be able to differentiate between passive and active euthanasia. Passive euthanasia is seen as non-treatment of an illness, whereas the untreated disease or ailment is left alone so as to run rampid in the person and kill them. Also, withholding a respirator is also considered passive. Active is seen as intentionally performing an action such as administering a lethal dose of medication. Physicians who go about such actions usually inject a lethal dose of a drug called Curare. Another form of active euthanasia would be removing a patient from a respirator with the intent that the patient will die. One such case would be that of Karen Ann Quinlan. The case of 21 year old Karen Ann Quinlan touched off a national debate about the care of the terminally ill. After Karen had been in a coma and attached to a respirator for more than six months, her parents sued for the right to have the artificial life support discontinued. The New Jersey Supreme Court authorized removal of the life support. Ironically, death never occurred. Karen miraculously continued to live, and was able to breathe without the support of the respirator. Because of the irony that may occur with certain cases, such as that of Karen Ann Quinlan, questions arise as to what constitutes a person as dead.
Brain death has been accepted as the medical basis for declaring a person dead. But as of now brain status does not yet specify criteria for establishing total brain death. Physicians and nurses may demonstrate a sense of discomfort and sense of guilt when left to face terminally-ill patients. The concern for what happens after the plug is pulled must be taken into account. As it stands, a doctor is not held responsible for not putting a patient on a support system initially. Once the patient is on the support however, the doctor can be held liable for removing the support. Most doctors would not pull the plug for support until state laws protect from charges of murder. In light of this situation, many compassionate doctors hold back initial life support in cases where patients seem unsalvageable.
Because of the legal issues involved in euthanasia, many contend for a legal document called a Living Will. This document is one created by a person at any time in their healthy life. It declares the forethought wishes of that person. In circumstances of accidental or sudden illness or injury the preferred treatment would be known to the victims family and physician. The terms and conditions of the will could outline consent for withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. This in effect protects the tending physician from malpractice. Unfortunately, Living Will documents in some states have certain restrictions. For example, in the U.S., North Carolina gives the family a dominant say in whether or not treatment continues. There may be problems associated with this however. In certain instances financial burdens placed on the family may determine the decisions that are made. On the other hand, the plight of some families to gain monetarily can have a large impact on what decisions are made toward