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It has been said that if a fence is built around something, one should learn why the fence is there before dismantling it. For thousands of years, in virtually every culture, a legal “fence” has prohibited euthanasia and treated it as homicide.

Current trends indicate a willingness to dismantle this protective fence, picket by picket, fueled by the desire for “patient self-determination,” “death with dignity,” and “the right to control the time of death.”

The first “picket” for which removal is advocated is to allow someone to voluntarily choose death and have someone else administer it. What harm would there be, the argument goes, if the choice is freely made, strictly regulated, and achieves a good end – namely, relief from suffering or choosing one’s own time?

Perhaps you are persuaded by this reasoning. It is important for you to understand why this rationale is flawed and puts many vulnerable people at risk.

Shouldn’t euthanasia be legal if a patient “freely” requests death?
This argument might seem reasonable to you. Supporters of euthanasia argue that the right of a competent patient to make medical treatment decisions should include the right to request and receive death by lethal injection.

There are dangers, however, even when patients are allowed to “freely” request euthanasia:

  • Patients are misdiagnosed and could make an irreversible decision to die based on the wrong information. You may know someone who was told they had three months to live who survived for years. 
  • A government-ordered study in the Netherlands found that 65% of family physicians are of the opinion that a doctor may offer the choice of assisted suicide or euthanasia to a patient who has not asked for it. 
  • Because patients are strongly influenced by doctors, a vulnerable patient may feel there is no other alternative if his or her doctor recommends death. 
  • Who can confirm that the euthanasia or suicide choice was freely made when the only witness is dead?
  • Patients with terminal or serious illnesses change their minds. When they don’t feel well, they may want to die. When feeling better, they want to live.
  • Patients suffering from depression may request death, not knowing that their quality of life can be improved with proper treatment.
  • If society endorses euthanasia, it will “teach” the weak and frail that they have a “duty” to die. 
  • The collapse of support systems will lead patients to believe they have no other choice but death. Hospitals and insurance companies will find it cheaper to kill rather than care, placing more pressure on patients to choose death. 

Could we just legalize voluntary euthanasia and stop there?
The answer is clearly NO – for legal, moral and practical reasons.

Courts all over the United States have already moved from recognizing the right of competent patients to refuse medical treatment to granting that “benefit” to those unable or unwilling to make the decision for themselves. The same legal principles would apply if “voluntary” euthanasia were available. For example, if a person not in pain can request and receive a lethal injection, then how can a request be denied to a person with mental retardation perceived to be suffering? The law will not allow such an “inequity” to stand.

If killing a person because he or she is suffering is morally justifiable, then it is equally moral for someone else to make the decision for a person who is incapacitated and unable to do so.

Did you know that doctors in Nazi Germany killed up to 250,000 people who were deemed “unfit?” These doctors added more and more people into the “unfit” category, including those with mental retardation, mental illness, epilepsy, and bed wetters. The experience in the Netherlands has been the same. This country initially approved only voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide which rapidly developed to include family members making death decisions for those who are incapacitated. The Netherlands recently adopted guidelines allowing parents to consent to direct killing of newborn infants with disabilities.

Shouldn’t euthanasia be available for people who are in pain?
No one wants to be in pain or see their loved ones in pain. This is a very real fear you may have. Fortunately, we live in a time when medicine has made great strides to manage pain. It is important to have a medical team who understands how to relieve pain.

The Wisconsin Cancer Pain Initiative has been working for many years to teach medical professionals how to relieve pain. Please click http://aspi.wisc.edu/wpi/ to visit their web site.

The Alliance of State Pain Initiatives (ASPI) has an excellent booklet with information for patients on how to discuss pain symptoms with their doctor. The booklet can be found at www.aspi.wisc.edu/CPCBR.htm

In Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, the most important reasons people report for requesting suicide is not pain but loss of autonomy and fear of incapacity. We hope after reviewing this information that you will not use pain as a reason to support euthanasia. 

What other reasons are promoted for using euthanasia?
Make no mistake: while proponents of euthanasia “sell” the act by talking about people who are in severe pain, they have no intention of stopping at pain or even terminal illness.

A professor from Brown University, Jacob M. Appel, wrote in the May-June 2007 issue of the Hastings Center Report that assisted suicide should be available to people who suffer from “repeated bouts of severe depression.” This concept is finding support among mainstream commentators who favor assisted suicide, calling it “rational suicide.” They reason that mental suffering can be just as great as physical suffering so people should be able to avail themselves of death to relieve an unbearable life of mental suffering. These same arguments can be applied to euthanasia.

This rationale is known as the “slippery slope.” Once you open the door for killing of patients for one reason, it is nearly impossible to limit the “right” to that one circumstance. Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan doctor who assisted in the deaths of over 130 people, helped people to kill themselves even if they were not dying. In the Netherlands, legalized euthanasia for terminal illness has been followed by recognition that it is “needed” for mental illness. The Netherlands has also extended the euthanasia “right” to newborn infants with disabilities.

How would people be affected if euthanasia is legalized?
You and your loved ones will certainly be affected. The practice of medicine would change because healing and killing would become equally valid goals of the medical profession. If death becomes a legal “right,” doctors will feel obligated to offer death as an “option” to all of their patients.

Those at risk of being killed without consent or against their own wishes would become fearful of seeing a physician, being hospitalized, or entering a nursing home. You would view medical professionals and even your own family members with suspicion, fearing that they will choose death by lethal injection without your consent or even against your wishes.

Who opposes legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia?
The driving force in opposition to legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide has been medical and disability rights groups. The American Medical Association has an official position in opposition to legalization. Disability rights groups are opposed because they recognize that people with disabilities are potential victims of these practices.

In California, state and national Latino organizations worked with a coalition to defeat the proposed assisted suicide law there.

Right-to-life groups and major church denominations also worked to defeat these measures.

For more information on euthanasia, please visit www.nightingalealliance.org.