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Euthanasia and physician assisted suicide

Meanings of terms

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Meanings of Terms:

Most people in North America experience at the end of their life what may be called a bad death. One study found that "More often than not, patients died in pain, their desires concerning treatment neglected, after spending 10 days or more in an intensive care unit." cited in Ref. 1

In contrast, the word euthanasia originated from the Greek language: "eu" means "good" and "thanatos" means "death."

Like so many moral/ethical/religious terms, "euthanasia" has multiple meanings:

  • One meaning given to the word is "the intentional termination of life by another at the explicit request of the person who dies." 2 That is, the act must be initiated by the person who wishes to commit suicide. The term "Physician Assisted Suicide" or "Assisted Suicide" is preferred because it is unambiguous. It implies that the individual does the requesting and a doctor or other indivicual meets their needs.

  • Others define "euthanasia" as including both voluntary and involuntary termination of life.

  • A poll conducted for LifeCanada, a Canadian pro-life group, by Environics used an extremely broad definition of euthanasia: "the use of lethal means to take the life of someone who is sick, depressed, elderly or disabled." This is a very broad definition that would cover the following situations:
    • A terminally ill person in intractible pain who is not depressed and who repeatedly pleads for help in dying. This is commonly called physician assisted suicide, and
    • An individual experiencing a treatable disease, and
    • A roving squad of government thugs visiting every nursing home, selecting those residents who are not contributing to society, lining them up agansit a wall, and machine gunning them to death, and
    • A court sentencing an amputee or blind to be executed because he has difficulty walking or seeing, and
    • A teenager who is depressed because his first love relationship failed and who wants help in committing suicide.

    Obviously, a unique definition was created for this public opinion poll in order to obtain data showing minimal support for "euthanasia." Surprisingly, they found that 61% of Canadian adults supported euthanasia using their definition. The subjects probably ignored the pollsters' definition and substituted their own.

It is important to differentiate among a number of vaguely terms:

bulletPassive Euthanasia: Hastening the death of a person by altering some form of support and letting nature take its course. For example:
bullet Removing life support equipment (e.g. turning off a respirator) or

bullet Stopping medical procedures, medications etc., or

bullet Stopping food and water and allowing the person to dehydrate or starve to death.

bullet Not delivering CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) and allowing a person, whose heart has stopped, to die.

Perhaps the most common form of passive euthanasia is to give a patient large doses of morphine to control pain, in spite of the likelihood that the pain-killer will suppress respiration and cause death earlier than it would otherwise have happened. Such doses of pain killers have a dual effect of relieving pain and hastening death. Administering such medication is regarded as ethical in most political jurisdictions and by most medical societies.

These procedures are performed on terminally ill, suffering persons so that natural death will occur sooner. It is also done on persons in a Persistent Vegetative State -- individuals with massive brain damage who are in a coma from which they cannot possibly regain consciousness.

bullet Active Euthanasia: This involves causing the death of a person through a direct action, in response to a request from that person. A well known example was the mercy killing in 1998 of a patient with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan physician. His patient was frightened that the advancing disease would cause him to die a horrible death in the near future; he wanted a quick, painless exit from life. Dr. Kevorkian injected controlled substances into the patient, thus causing his death. Charged with 1st degree murder, the jury found him guilty of 2nd degree murder in 1999-MAR.

bullet Physician Assisted Suicide: A physician supplies information and/or the means of committing suicide (e.g. a prescription for lethal dose of sleeping pills, or instructions on how to commit suicide with helium or carbon monoxide gas) to a person, so that they can easily terminate their own life. The term "voluntary passive euthanasia" (VPE) is becoming commonly used.

One writer 3 suggested the synonym "to kevork". This is derived from the name of Dr. Kevorkian, who has promoted VPE and assisted at the deaths of hundreds of patients. Originally he hooked his patients up to a machine that delivered measured doses of medications, but only after the patient pushed a button to initiate the sequence. More recently, he provided carbon monoxide and a face mask so that his patient could initiate the flow of gas.

bullet Involuntary Euthanasia: This term is used by some to describe the killing of a person who has not explicitly requested aid in dying. This is most often done to patients who are in a Persistent Vegetative State and will probably never recover consciousness. It has been used to refer to government programs of genocide -- for example the program for exterminating developmentally challenged Germans by the Nazi Government during the late 1930's.
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References used in the above essay:

  1. John Horgan, "Right to Die," Scientific American, 1996-MAY.
  2. Definition of Euthanasia by the Netherlands State Commission on Euthanasia.
  3. Martin Levin, "Verdicts on Verdicts About Easeful Death", the Globe and Mail, Toronto, 1996-AUG-10, Page D5.

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Copyright © 1997 to 2010, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated on 2010-SEP-04
Hyperlinks checked on 2010-SEP-04
Author: B.A. Robinson
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