The Moral Permissibility of Legalizing Active Euthanasia To date, in the united States of America, active euthanasia has been seen as unacceptable in legal terms. However, the issue is not so clear in moral terms among the public, and especially among the medical community. In fact, nearly half of the doctors in the United States say that they would prescribe active euthanasia under certain circumstances. The law that prohibits active euthanasia restricts many people from doing what they feel morally justified to do. The moral aspects of killing a person would be the primary point in the argument that society would be harmed by the legalization of voluntary active euthanasia. Therefore, it is most important to morally justify the practice of active euthanasia in order for an argument to be formed in favor of the legalization of active euthanasia.
I will first prove that passive and active euthanasia have the same moral permissibility and therefore should have the same legality. I will also discuss the two main arguments for the moral justification of active euthanasia as well as refute four arguments against the legalization of active euthanasia. I believe some of the arguments against active euthanasia can be dismissed, and some of the arguments can be overridden by the importance of an individual's self-determination and well-being. Before arguing my first point, it is necessary to understand the difference between killing and letting die. Some argue that letting die, which is the action considered to take place in passive euthanasia, is morally permissible and killing, which is the action considered to take place in active euthanasia, is not morally permissible. I consider these both to be actions without any moral difference.
James Rachels puts the distinction between killing and letting die in a very understandable way when he said, "One may let a patient die by way of not giving him medication, just as one may insult someone by way of not shaking his hand.' (p. 132). In Rachels example the action, or lack of action, is not the relevant point because in each case in the example the actions are the same. Instead, it is the intentions of the person which are important and relevant because the intentions in each case are obviously not the same. I agree with Rachel and I too believe the moral difference between killing and letting die does not lye in the action a person takes, but in the intentions of a person in carrying out those action (s). Furthermore, it is important to understand that if one of the two actions is going to be accepted it is logical that they both be accepted because the actions are not morally different.
To say that killing is morally impermissible and letting die is morally permissible or vice versa seems to be ignorant. Specific cases for killing and letting die can be presented where the equality of the moral permissibility between the two can be put into question. For example, a hunter walking in the woods trips over a rock and shoots his son who dies, while in the other part of town a mother finds her baby lying face down in water filled bathtub, does nothing about it, and the baby dies. The first part of this scenario depicts an obvious case of killing, while the second part depicts an obvious case of letting die. Although the actions in each case were the same, the case of killing is more easily morally justified than the case of letting die because the intentions in the former were good, while the intentions in the latter were bad.
It is easy to see that with each set of circumstances the moral permissibility of killing and letting die may vary because of the intentions of a person. Therefore, killing, which is the action considered to take place in active euthanasia, should have the same moral permissibility as letting die, which is the action considered to take place in passive euthanasia, as long as the intentions in each are the same because it is the intentions of a person that determines the moral permissibility and not the actions of a person. Moreover, because passive and active euthanasia have the same moral permissibility and intention, which is the eventual death of a person, then active euthanasia should have the same legality as passive euthanasia. Having said that, I believe the most important reason for the moral permissibility of active euthanasia is the freedom of self-determination, better known as autonomy. Autonomy suggests that competent and free-thinking adults have the right to make important decisions about their lives.
I believe that the moral and personal benefits to preserving autonomy in society outweigh any moral or legal arguments prohibiting autonomy, such as prohibiting active euthanasia. I believe this because being able to exercise autonomy is a value that is woven into nearly every aspect of life and to destroy a person's autonomy could greatly undermine a person's life. Therefore, people should be able to exercise autonomous decisions over most aspects of their life, including death. To deny someone the right to make an autonomous decision about their death, contradicts the basic American ideal of self-determination.
Author Dan Brock sums up nicely the reason why death should be an autonomous when he wrote, "If self-determination [autonomy] is a fundamental value, then… it is especially important that individuals control the manner, circumstances, and timing of their dying and death.' (p. 114). That is why I believe autonomy is essential in arguing the moral permissibility of active euthanasia. The second reason for the moral permissibility of active euthanasia is that active euthanasia would relieve suffering and increase an individual's well-being overall. A quick and relatively painless death bypasses the physical and mental agony of a long, painful, and undignified death that has become common in today's society, even with advancements in medical technology.
With new technology working to extend life unnaturally, society has shifted the control over the time of death into human hands, but not the hands of the patient. I believe it is morally impermissible to deprive a person of their dignity by allowing another person, a physician, to decide what is best for the patient's well-being. Therefore, I believe it is morally permissible to place the control over the time of a patient's death into his or her own hands, thus allowing the patient to have control over his or her well-being and dignity. Despite the fact active euthanasia seems to be morally permissible, many would agree that there are numerous concerns to the legalization of active euthanasia. First, opponents to active euthanasia argue that active euthanasia is morally impermissible because active euthanasia involves two people and, therefore, for a patient to ask a physician to kill him or her is morally impermissible. However, I believe that it is morally permissible for a patient to request active euthanasia as long as the physician is a proponent of active euthanasia and, more importantly, believes the patient is in what the physician views as the correct mental and physical states to make such a decision.
Although, I realize that each physician varies as to what he or she believes are the correct mental and physical states for allowing active euthanasia, I believe that is not a valid enough reason to destroy a person's autonomy and prohibit active euthanasia. Legalizing active euthanasia would not give physician's the right to decide on a person's life, but it would simply allow the physician to act as a safeguard between the person and his own death, much like in cases of physician assisted suicide. A second objection is that active euthanasia would forever alter the fundamentals of the medical profession by weakening the commitment to provide care for the dying. This at first seems like a valid argument because it would be a detriment to society if trust diminished in the intentions of the medical profession. However, to suggest that active euthanasia, if legalized, would become a popular and preferred "treatment' by doctors is unrealistic. I believe that active euthanasia would not conflict with the intentions of doctors, but actually provide doctors with another outlet for improving the well-being and autonomy of a patient...
In addition, the image of doctors as healers will remain intact and confidence in doctors would increase because he would have the authority to carry-out his patients wishes. A third objection to the legalization of active euthanasia is that active euthanasia erodes the progress of the right to refuse treatment. It must be kept in mind that the patient still has the right to refuse treatment and could completely reject the idea of active euthanasia if active euthanasia were legalized. The legalization of active euthanasia would actually strengthen the right to refuse treatment because health care providers would take the wishes of the patient into more consideration. I believe that the legalization of euthanasia would assert the value of autonomy and the wishes of the patient to be carried out. Therefore, the patients wishes to refuse treatment would be more carefully adhered to.
The fourth and final objection to the legalization of active euthanasia is that the option of active euthanasia would change the attitude of society, and bring about widespread abuse of the law. I disagree with this objection wholeheartedly. It is ridiculous to assume that people who are in great pain and suffering would not choose the option of active euthanasia if it were illegal, and would choose the option if active euthanasia were legal. I believe the decision of active euthanasia is much too personal and important to be affected by the legality of active euthanasia. Moreover, there are obviously far greater factors at work in the mind of someone who is considering active euthanasia as an option for ending their lives, such as the amount of pain they are experiencing.
In this paper, I have shown that there is no difference in the moral permissibility between passive and active euthanasia and, therefore, active euthanasia should have the same legality as passive euthanasia. I have also shown that active euthanasia is morally permissible on the grounds that an individual's autonomy and well-being are essential values that take precedence in the moral permissibility argument for active euthanasia. I have argued that the legalization of active euthanasia would not lead to the decline in medical care, erosion of the right to refuse treatment, and widespread abuse of the law. I have made it is obvious that the motivations for legalizing active euthanasia are all positive and have good intentions to promote the will of the individual, and if implemented in the correct way, the results of legalizing active euthanasia will be beneficial to society as a whole.
Brock, Dan W. "Voluntary Active Euthanasia: An Overview and Defense.' Excerpted from "Voluntary Active Euthanasia,' Hastings Center Report 22 (March/April) 1992: pp. 165. Rachels, James. "Active and Passive Euthanasia,' The New England Journal of Medicine, 292, No. 2 (January 9, 1975), pp.