“The third night that I roomed with Jack in our tiny double room, in the solid-tumor ward of the cancer clinic of the National Institute of Health in Maryland, a terrible thought occurred to me. Jack had a melanoma in his belly, a malignant solid tumor that the doctors guessed was the size of a softball. The doctors planned to remove the tumor, but they knew Jack would soon die.
The cancer had now spread out of control. Jack, about 28, was in constant pain, and his doctor had prescribed an intravenous shot, a pain killer, and this would control the pain for perhaps two hours or a bit more. Then he would begin to moan, or whimper, very low, as though he didn’t want to wake me.
Then he would begin to howl, like a dog. When this happened, he would ring for a nurse, and ask for the pain-killer. The third night of his routine, a terrible thought occurred to me. ‘If Jack were a dog, I thought, what would be done to him?’ The answer was obvious: the pound, and the chloroform. No human being with a spark of pity could let a living thing suffer so, to no good end.” (James Rachel’s The Morality of Euthanasia)
The experience of Stewart Alsop, a respected journalist, who died in 1975 of a rare form of cancer gave an example on the morality of euthanasia. Before he died, he wrote movingly of his experiences with another terminal patient. Although he had not thought much about euthanasia before, he came to approve of it after sharing a room with Jack. While growing up, each of us learns a large number of rules of conduct. Which rules we learn will depend on the kind of society we live in and the parents and the friends we have.
We may learn to be honest, to be loyal, and to work hard. Sometimes we learn a rule without understanding its point. In most cases this may work out, for the rule may be designed to cover ordinary circumstances, but when faced with unusual situations, we may be in trouble. This situation is the same with moral rules. Without understanding the rules, we may come to think of it as a mark of virtue that we will not consider making exceptions to. We need a way of understanding the morality against killing.
The point is not to preserve every living thing possible, but to protect the interests of individuals to have the right of choice to die. People who oppose euthanasia have argued constantly doctors have often been known to miscalculate or to make mistakes. Death is final and irreversible; in some cases doctors have wrongly made diagnostic errors during a check-up. Patients being told they have cancer or AIDS, by their doctors’ mistake, have killed themselves to avoid the pain.
Gay-Williams, The Wrongfulness of Euthanasia, stated: “Contemporary medicine has high standards of excellence and a proven record of accomplishment, but it does not possess perfect and complete knowledge. A mistaken diagnosis is possible. We may believe that we are dying of a disease when, as a matter of fact, we may not be. . . .” (419)
Williams explains that patients who have been told by their doctors they have cancer never actually had it. But there have been so few cases reported that these remarks are often considered to be speculations. The individual should have been able to continue living until he felt the need to be confined to a bed. I cannot disagree with the fact that doctors do make mistakes, but they are more correct than they are wrong. Let’s say that the patient chooses not to die but instead takes the medicines his doctor has prescribed for him.
In doing so the patient is choosing for himself. He’s making his own decisions; he could see other doctors to see if his illness had not been mistakenly presented. Is it not for the individual to decide whether she or he wants to live or die? John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, expresses his view on individual rights:
“In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” (629) Those opposing euthanasia have also argued that practicing euthanasia prevents the development of new cures and rules out unpracticed methods in saving a life. Gay-Williams says: “Also, there is always the possibility that an experimental procedure or a hitherto untried technique will pull us through. We should at least keep this option open, but euthanasia closes it off.”
“They might decide that the patient would simply be ‘better off dead’ and take the steps necessary to make that come about. This attitude would then carry over to their dealings with patients less seriously ill. The result would be an overall decline in quality of medical care.” (419)
Euthanasia does not have to prevent medical researchers from inventing new cures or trying new methods in saving a life. Having new cures that are successful will reduce the number of patients wanting to die. Recent news says medical researchers have now reported on new methods of treating and curing cancer patients. News such as this would let those who think they “are better off dead” have confidence and hope for a life to live.
The common argument in support of euthanasia is one that is called “The argument of mercy.” Patients sometimes suffer pain that can hardly be comprehended by those who have not experienced it. The suffering would be so terrible that people wouldn’t want to read or think about; and recoil in horror from its description. The argument for mercy simply states: Euthanasia is morally justified because it ends suffering. Terminally ill patients are people who will never attain a personal existence, never experience life as a net value, and/or never achieve a minimal level of independence.
The moral issue regarding euthanasia is not affected by whether more could have been done for a patient; but whether euthanasia is allowable if it is the only alternative to torment. Euthanasia does not refer to Nazi-like elimination of the sick, old, or unproductive; traditionally euthanasia means the search for a good death, an easier death for one who is dying, a death released in some measure from intractable suffering.
If a person prefers and even begs for death as an alternative to linger on in torment, only to die, then surely it is not immoral to help this person die sooner. John M. Freeman, “To Treat or Not to Treat,” expresses the dilemma as follows: “If we elect not to listen to a person’s wish on dying, what becomes of him? Is he to be fed and watered while the physician waits for him to develop Mennonites? Is he to be sedated and fed inadequately so that he dies slowly of starvation without making too much noise?” (150)
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is one of the oldest and most common moral proverbs, which applies to everyone alike. When people try to decide whether certain actions are morally correct, they must ask whether they would be willing for everyone to follow that rule, in similar circumstances. The application of this to the question of euthanasia is fairly obvious. Each of us is going to die someday, although people don’t know how or when, and we will probably have little choice in the matter. But suppose you were given two choices: to die quietly and painlessly or hope to live and suffer?
A chance to survive a disease so painful that you could only moan for those few days before death; with family members standing helplessly by. What would your ideal choice be? I know I would choose the quick and painless death. Why is euthanasia considered morally wrong by some people? The principle of self-determination promotes the ideas of self-governance, freedom of choice, and personal responsibility for individual decisions and behaviors. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, says:
“But the strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct is that, when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly and in the wrong place..” (635) Self determination protects privacy and the rights of a person to determine his or her own life or property without specifying what choice or action should be embraced.
What if Jack were your brother, your husband, or your son; would you let him suffer or die painlessly? The doctors planed to remove the tumor, but they knew eventually “nature will take its course.” Society does not have the right to tell an individual how to control his own life. If an individual chooses to die, then by all mean he has that right; the right is paramount. Euthanasia is morally correct, although this method of relieving pain has been the topic of great moral debates. May we be vested in the wisdom, patience, and courage to perceive the limitations of our particular moral visions and derived norm. Robert Louis Stevenson, Crabbed Age and Youth, says “Old and young, we are all on our last cruise.”