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Opposing Legalization of the Right to Die

Lauren O'Brien
Class of 2005, Mount Saint Mary's Rhetoric and Communications Major

A disabled man shares his personal experience with euthanasia:

As a quadriplegic who has been paralyzed from the chest down for over 24 years, I want to address the dangerous potential ramifications of legalizing physician assisted suicide (PAS) from a viewpoint of personal experience. The past danger I am referring to concerns the time when I was first paralyzed. My paralysis is the result of a broken neck and spinal cord injury from a car accident in 1975. Add to this cheery scenario the fact that I was soon greeted by a doctor who told me I was not supposed to have lived as long as I had, would most likely die shortly, or, in the best case would spend the remainder of my life confined to a wheelchair and you know I was not in the best of moods. After I surprised the doctors and lived to get into rehab, they told me, at that time, the average lifespan of a male quadriplegic was 36 years.

By then, I would probably die from a pressure sore, kidney failure, or other related complication. That meant my best hope was 15 more years paralyzed. I'm 45 now and can look back on that laughingly. It wasn't so funny then. I spent 6 weeks getting medically stable followed by 4 and a half months in rehabilitation. During that period, there were MANY times when I didn't know if I wanted to go on. What have I done since the accident? I have lived semi-independently for nearly 23 years. In 1985, I graduated the University of Southern Maine with a B.A. in Communication. In 1989, I graduated Regent University in Virginia Beach with an M.A. in Creative Writing/Journalism.

While there, I also worked with a large non-profit organization, received an outstanding service award for working 5 years in an inner city project, wrote and sold 2 radio dramas that were nationally syndicated, wrote a one-act play that was produced several times, plus worked on a national presidential campaign. To put it simply, my life has been, and continues to be, full and productive. My past concern is simple. What would I have done if PAS had been an option when I was first injured or during any of the critical complications I've been through since. In retrospect, there were many times when I don't know. I can't begin to express the roller coaster of emotional ups and downs I went through. Now, I'm incredibly grateful that PAS wasn't an option (How Physician Assisted Suicide Could Affect People).

If this disabled man was a resident in Oregon, he would have had the option of voluntary euthanasia. In the most excruciating and painful moments, he may have been compelled to request to die. Luckily, the policies of the legal system he lived within did not permit euthanasia and he proceeded to live a dignified life. The state of Oregon is the only state in the United States that allows voluntary euthanasia to occur legally. On January 1st, 2004, Oregon will be entering its sixth year under the Death with Dignity Act. The Death and Dignity Act legalizes voluntary euthanasia. It is imperative to understand the particular definitions of euthanasia to comprehend the public policy controversy.

The International Task Force of Euthanasia defines euthanasia as "the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit. (The key word here is ‘intentional'. If death is not intended, it is not an act of euthanasia)" (Hamlon). There are two distinct kinds of euthanasia: voluntary and non-voluntary (involuntary). Voluntary euthanasia is when the person who is killed has requested to be killed whereas non-voluntary or involuntary euthanasia is when the person who is killed made no request and gave no consent (Hamlon). The actual act of doctors helping patients to their death is referred to as physican assisted suicide. Oregon's Death with Dignity Act allows voluntary euthanasia after certain requirements have been met.

After investigating each conflicting side of euthanasia policy, it is apparent that Oregon's Death and Dignity Act negatively shapes society, denies alternatives to pain, and provides dangerous precedents. Therefore, voluntary euthanasia should not be legalized in Oregon. Legalization of voluntary euthanasia in Oregon shapes what Peter Saunders, General surgeon and secretary of the Christian Medical Fellowship, calls "the public conscience" (4). Oregon's Death and Dignity Act encourages non-Oregonian citizens to engage in a controversial debate about public policy and rebel against their state policies. The fight for the "right to die" is reflected through opposing organizations and even in particular cases in communities. Recently, the Florida band "Hell on Earth" began planning to have a terminally ill fan undergo euthanasia on the stage during a concert in St. Petersburg on October 4th (Kaufman).

The 2003 Florida Statutes declare that one found guilty of assisting self-murder will be guilty of manslaughter and a felony of the second degree (Florida Status). The investigation is still underway, but the lead singer states, "I support the right to die with dignity" (Kaufman). Because euthanasia is legal in a region of America, people are at ease with using the topic of euthanasia to gain publicity and social attention. In a 1994-1995 publication of a Committee Report addressing the legalization of euthanasia, the House of Lords of the UK Parliament states, "The death of a person affects the lives of others, often in ways and to an extent which cannot be foreseen. We believe that the issue of euthanasia is one in which the interest of the individual cannot be separated from the interest of society as a whole" (qtd. in Gormally 4).

Accordingly, the Hell of Earth fan should consider the impact that his public suicide will have on society, especially since the setting is at a rock concert. Unfortunately, the influence of Oregon's Death and Dignity Act supports and encourages persons, such as the industrial rock fan, to rebel against their own state policies. Voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide is unnecessary in Oregon because alternative treatments exist. On October 2, 2002, Pope John Paul II stated:

In a society, in which all too often it seems that only good health and profitability matter, it is necessary to see weak persons or those at the end of life with other eyes; in particular, by applying and developing palliative care for all patients whose situation calls for it (qtd. in Church).

Many suggest that there is no hope for terminally ill patients and, therefore, patients resort to euthanasia for the easy escape. Saunders agrees with the Pope when he states, "Meticulous research in palliative medicine has in recent years shown that virtually all unpleasant symptoms experienced win the process of terminal illness can be either relieved or substantially alleviated by techniques already available" (1). Hospice is a kind of palliative care that has aided in relieving pain of terminally ill patients. Trixie Lewis, an employee of the South Pasadena Hospice Health Care Center agrees that hospice is a better alternative than euthanasia. "Hospice when properly utilized gives that relief to the terminally ill and the family affected by the illness" (2).

There are, of course, extreme cases in which palliative care does not relieve all the pain of a terminally ill patient. Controversially, there are also cases in which patients experience extreme difficulty during the euthanasia process. According to the International Task Force on Euthanasia, Oregon does not report or provide information about the problems and complications with euthanasia (Hamlon)."If it were not for occasional news reports or inadvertent disclosures, assisted suicide in Oregon would seem problem free" (Hamlon). The news provides us with the troubling account of Patrick Matheny and his experience with euthanasia in Oregon. After Oregon Health Sciences University sent Matheny his lethal dose of drugs via Federal Express, Matheny neglected to take the lethal dose for four months. Joe Hayes, Matheny's brother in law, was there on the day that Matheny died. Hayes describes how he had to assist Matheny to his death. "It doesn't go smoothly for everyone," Hayes said, "For Pat, it was a huge problem. It would not have worked without help" (qtd. in Hamlon). When advocates of euthanasia consider the flaws of palliative care, they should also consider the painful risks of euthanasia. Instead of resorting to euthanasia, the ultimate solution is to encourage more training and research to manage the pain of the terminally ill.

Not everyone agrees that alternative treatments are effective. In Peter Singer's essay, Freedom and the Right to Die, he emphasizes the lack of options in palliative care. Therefore, he believes that if man is suffering, then he has the right to die (2). He suggests that patients that are not worthy of living can be recognized through a series of psychiatric qualifications (Singer 2). He also implies that there is training that can advise a doctor how to make the best decision concerning the patient (2). Instead of Singer's idea of devoting training efforts to encourage euthanasia, training efforts should be directed to enhancing the quality of palliative care.

The legalization of voluntary euthanasia in Oregon encourages involuntary (without consent) euthanasia and increases the occurrences of involuntary euthanasia. Once euthanasia is legalized, advocates of euthanasia will expand the extremities of its definition and pressure other states to follow. Burke Balch, director of the Department of Medical Ethics at the National Right to Life Committee, said, "The Oregon law is merely a foot in the door. Euthanasia proponents have made it clear that they intend to push America into involuntary euthanasia" (Allen). The Netherlands is a solid example of how voluntary euthanasia increases the accounts of involuntary euthanasia. Approximately a decade after the Netherlands legalized voluntary euthanasia, a growing acceptance for involuntary euthanasia followed. Luke Gormally, who was responsible for influencing the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory of Australia to overturn the legalization of euthanasia, writes that, "Having worked for the acceptance of what purported to be the ‘strictly controlled' practice of voluntary only, they are now working for the acceptance of the practice of non-voluntary euthanasia"(1).

The progression of acceptance can also be seen in the Nazi holocaust. Much of the cruel ideologies that influenced the holocaust spawned from the general attitude in nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals, and geriatric institutions. Leo Alexander, a psychiatrist with the Office of the Chief Counsel for War Crimes at Nuremberg, describes the progression of ideology to action.

The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physician. It started with the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans (qtd. in Saunders).

Even though the Oregon Death with Dignity Act only permits voluntary euthanasia, it is likely that Oregon will widen its acceptance for involuntary euthanasia alike the Netherlands and the instances in the Nazi Holocaust.

Surgeon General of the United States makes a powerful statement about euthanasia. He says:

While the terror of state-sponsored euthanasia may never grip America as it once did Germany, it is possible that the terror of the euthanasia ethic - tolerated by medicine and an indifferent public and practiced by a few physicians - may grip many invisible and vulnerable Americans. Over fifty years ago, German doctors and courts collaborated to identify millions of people who were labeled 'devoid of value'. Some Americans are labeled the same today: members of a racial or ethnic 'underclass', a sidewalk screamer ... an illegal alien ... a nursing home resident with Alzheimer's disease ... an abandoned migrant worker ... or anyone too old or weak or poor to help himself or herself. For two millennia the Hippocratic tradition has stood for the 'sanctity' of human life. We can alleviate the unbearable in life better than ever before. We can do that and not eliminate life itself. As I have said many times, medicine cannot be both our healer and our killer (Koop).

Oregon's Death with Dignity Act should be abolished. Voluntary euthanasia is illegitimate because it corrupts society, neglects palliatives care options, and may lead to the dangerous acceptance of involuntary euthanasia. In the end, eliminating the mercy killing law in Oregon, will protect society and preserve the value of life

Works Cited