Debates about the moral dilemmas of euthanasia date back to ancient times. Many of the historical arguments used for and against the practice remain vu I id today. Indeed, any form of discussion on the subject often provokes emotive responses, both from members of the medical profession and the general public.
For this reason alone, the issue will continue to be debated at all levels of society. There are, however, other factors that ensure euthanasia will remain a subject of major controversy within medical, legal and governmental bodies.
Firstly, the act of euthanasia itself is illegal, yet in its passive form occurs on a daily basis in many of our hospitals (1). Secondly, medical advances have made it possible to artificially prolong the life of an increasing number of patients far beyond what was possible only a few years ago. Furthermore, we must all contend with the reality that financial constraints are an important consideration in modern health care provision. Finally, there is an ethical difficulty in interpreting the concept of a patient’s right, or autonomy, versus the rights and duty of a doctor.
Before attempting to answer the questions posed by these issues, it is important to have some accurate definitions of both euthanasia and of the concept of morality. According to the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics, the precise definition of euthanasia is “a deliberate intervention undertaken with the express intention of ending a life, to relieve intractable suffering” (2). The term can be further divided into voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. The former is said to occur if a competent patient makes an informed request for a life terminating event and the latter can be used if a patient does not give informed and specific consent for such treatment. It is the occurrence of involuntary euthanasia which forms one of the main arguments against legalisation. This is discussed in greater detail below.
Euthanasia is frequently separated into active and passive forms. A number of authors consider these terms to be misleading and unhelpful. They are, however, used in the literature and in discussion and consequently should be understood. Active euthanasia takes place if deliberate steps are taken to end a patient’s life; this would include administration of potassium containing compounds to induce cardiac arrest, a practice that is illegal in this country. Passive euthanasia is the withholding of treatments necessary for the continuance of life. Whether the administration of increasingly necessary, albeit toxic doses of opioid analgesia is regarded as active or passive euthanasia is a matter of moral interpretation, but in order to pacify doctors’ consciences, it is usually regarded as a passive measure. Many people, therefore, regard it as an acceptable facet of good professional practice.
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