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Whose Life Is It Anyway Passive Euthanasia Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 3264 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This paper will discuss the moral permissibility and acceptability of passive euthanasia. The aim of the paper is to argue for the thesis that passive euthanasia is morally acceptable under certain conditions. I will present a defense of this thesis by defining its terms, distinguishing the various forms of euthanasia, especially between active and passive, as well as voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia. I will cite concrete cases and fictional examples through which the arguments and possible counterarguments can be contrasted. Various factors will be considered in the discussion that may affect the euthanasia decision, such as the pain and suffering of the patient, the issues of value of life, dignity, autonomy, and utility. The doctor-patient relationship and the doctor’s perspective will also be examined. All arguments and counterarguments will be evaluated from utilitarian and deontological (universalistic)….. perspectives.

The discussion of euthanasia will be restricted to medical patients with irreversible and incurable or terminal disease and in extreme physical or mental pain. In this paper I shall only consider the moral issues and omit the possible legal or medical implications.

The term euthanasia comes from the greek words ‘eu’ and ‘thanatos,’ for good and death (OED online). Strictly speaking, “the term ‘euthanasia’ refers to actions or omissions that result in the death of a person who is already gravely ill.” (Moreno, 1995). There are two important features of euthanasia. First, that euthanasia involves a deliberate and premeditated act, that is, deliberately taking of a person’s life; and, second, that it is an act of mercy, which is taken for the sake of the person whose life it is – typically because she/he is suffering from an incurable or terminal disease, and extreme, unbearable pain. This notion of mercy distinguishes euthanasia from most other forms of taking life.

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Euthanasia is a controversial concept, which evokes heated moral, medical, legal, and social debates. The term has both positive and negative connotations: the fundamental idea is, that a suffering person will be relieved by means of an act of mercy, but at the same time there are numerous abuse cases where people have been killed or murdered under the euthanasia pretext.

There are various forms of euthanasia. Although the topic of this paper is the discussion of moral acceptability of passive euthanasia, it is important to distinguish between active and passive forms of euthanasia: actively causing a person to die (for example by intentionally giving some medication) or passively allowing them to die by withdrawing or withholding their treatment, or taking away something they need to survive. Typical examples of passive euthanasia are switching off life-supporting machines, such as feeding tubes, respirators, or not carrying out life-extending operations and treatments or not giving life-extending drugs.

Another categorization of euthanasia is along voluntariness or by consent: voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia are both in the patient’s interest, freeing him/her from unbearable suffering. The difference between the two lies in the patient’s ability to make the decision. In the case of voluntary euthanasia (which is also often referred to as assisted suicide) the terminally ill patient is mentally competent and makes the decision about terminating his/her own life. [famous feature films: Whose life is it anyway, Million Dollar Baby…] In the case of non-voluntary euthanasia (which is also often referred to as mercy killing) the patient is not mentally competent to make a decision about his/her fate (for terminal brain damage or coma, for example) and a proxy, the guardian or physician makes the decision on his/her behalf. [concrete real life cases: Eluana Englaro, Terri Schiavo].

Finally, involuntary euthanasia – though not in the focus of this paper – needs to be mentioned as a conceptually different form of euthanasia. In this case euthanasia is administered without the consent, and against the will of the person. In the 1930s the Nazi campaign used this term to eliminate the ‘unhealthy’ – physically and mentally handicapped – members of society. Although the term euthanasia was used, this really wasn’t more than camouflaging mass-murder, since the Nazi political propaganda decided who was unworthy of life, and none of the elements of the euthanasia definition: gravely ill, terminal incurable disease, and unbearable suffering, and for the sake of the person, was tangible.

In the following I will compare and contrast passive and active euthanasia, discuss whether there is a moral difference between them, and mount a defense of the thesis, that in most cases there is no real moral difference between helping someone die and letting someone die. I will also argue that there is a more profound moral difference between voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia, and there need to be clear guidelines to ascertain that no one gets killed against his/her wishes (involuntary euthanasia).

Is there a moral difference between active and passive euthanasia?

In many countries worldwide passive euthanasia is legal, while active euthanasia is not, on the basis that passive euthanasia involves only an omission, (letting the patient die), while active euthanasia is a direct act. By explaining that there is, in fact, no relevant moral difference between omissions and acts, I will prove that active euthanasia is not immoral and is fundamentally no different than passive euthanasia.

First, we may argue, that it is not exactly correct to say that omission is a non-act, that in case of passive euthanasia the doctor does nothing (Rachels, 1975). Letting the patient die is also an act. There is an active decision of not to perform certain other actions, not to introduce life-saving treatment or medication. From a moral perspective pulling the plug of the respirator, withdrawing the feeding tube or withdraw a life sustaining treatment is an act itself, which means, that omission is also an act itself. Thus passive euthanasia is subject to moral appraisal in the same way that active euthanasia, a decision to directly act would be subject to moral appraisal. (link to moral theory ???…. don’t know….not obvious what to)

One may also argue that removing a machine that keeps an organ alive, as in passive euthanasia, is no different from functionally removing a biological organ in case of active euthanasia (a lethal injection, for example, which would stop the heart, making it unfunctional, thus leading to death) if both systems – the machine and the heart – are performing the same role (Hopkins, 1997). Both are cases of disrupting some process, which leads to death. In this sense, from a pragmatic, or utilitarian perspective, since both acts lead to the same conclusion, they both are cases of killing, and morally the same… (link to moral theory — maybe enough the utilitarian comment?)

From a utilitarian perspective (Bentham and Mill) if we consider the moral worth of an action, it is determined by its outcome and its utility. A utilitarian is only concerned with consequences, not with the acts themselves. Therefore, there does not seem to be any reason to distinguish between active and passive euthanasia, since they both lead to the same ultimate conclusion (the death of the patient). If we consider the amount of happiness or pain that either form of euthanasia creates, however, one may even argue, that withholding a treatment (passive euthanasia) may take the patient longer to die, and so lead to more suffering, than if more direct actions would be taken (active euthanasia). The process of being ‘allowed to die’ can be relatively slow and painful, whereas being given active euthanasia is relatively quick and painless (Rachels, 1975). This suggests, that – from a utilitarian perspective – once an initial decision not to prolong the patient’s life and agony has been made, active euthanasia would actually be preferable to passive euthanasia, because it would decrease overall pain. Therefore, if passive euthanasia is justified, then active euthanasia is more justified.

Let’s examine the difference between active and passive euthanasia from a …(deontologist?) perspective. One of Kant’s basic insights is that morality is a matter of motives and intentions, and not a matter of consequences (ref). If we accept that the intent of an action determines morality rather than the effects, omissions would be subject to the same moral evaluation as acts, since the underlying motives would be similar (to end the patient’s suffering). This argument also suggests that there is no morally relevant difference between act and omission, that is, between active and passive euthanasia. In fact, if we proceed with this argument and develop the logic that morality is a matter of intentions further, we can conclude, that passive euthanasia leads to more suffering rather than less, and is contrary to the motivation that prompts the initial decision of not to prolong the patient’s life and agony. Thus, active euthanasia is not only not morally inferior to passive euthanasia, but may indeed be preferable.

In contrast, from a causality perspective some can argue, that there is a moral distinction between active and passive euthanasia: ‘letting die’ may be seen as a means to give way to ongoing natural processes, letting nature take its course without substituting vital functions. Therefore, the removal of a life-supporting measure may be regarded as not killing, because it in itself does not lead to the consequences (death), only influences the time of its occurrence (Fuchs, 1998) (moral theory – causality Aristotle???) To allow someone to die from a disease we cannot cure and that we did not cause in the first place means to let nature take its course, and permit an outside factor, the disease to become the cause of death. On the other hand, actively administering euthanasia means that this act in itself becomes the ultimate cause of death, leading to moral culpability. (externalise-internalise the causation)


Turning our focus to …… non-voluntary euthanasia cases raise an additional moral dilemma: whether a person’ moral status changes when he/she becomes incompetent (because of persistent vegetative state, coma, etc.). If we adopt Dennett’s conditions for personhood (Wilson, 1984): intentional system, capable of reciprocity, capable of communication and conscious (self-conscious), we can safely argue that the person’s moral status does indeed change if they become incompetent. In other words, it is arguable if they need to be treated similarly or differently from capable individuals. This idea is similar to the abortion debate (and the moral personhood of the fetus) except, that rather than thinking about when one becomes a ‘person’, it is about when one stops being a ‘person’. (…Kant gives moral value to rational people so persons who have lost their consciousness, and ability to think need to be treated differently … need some more development of this idea using Kant) In this essay we will consider both voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia but will make a clear distinction between the two and will prove that there are different moral considerations when deciding about the permissibility or acceptability of each.

Current medical ethics seem to implicitly legitimize or legally accept passive euthanasia in many parts of the world with the moral argument of letting nature (the underlying disease) take its course, and accepting that human active (medical) intervention would simply lengthen this process unnecessarily (Moreno, 1995). This seems to be acceptable if that is what the patient wants (voluntary) or would have wanted (non-voluntary). Of course, the case of voluntary euthanasia is more straightforward: the patient is conscious and can actively give consent and confirm his/her wishes. In the case of non-voluntary euthanasia, however, when the patient is unconscious and incompetent, the decision makers must rely on former statements or comments of the patient where they had indicated they would not want to live ‘hooked up to a machine’ or ‘when it is hopeless’. An example is the well known and much debated Eluana Englaro case. The Italian woman had been in coma for irreversible brain damage that she had suffered in a car accident at the age of 20. For 17 years she was in a vegetative state, while her father, ultimately successfully, fought for passive euthanasia (having her feeding tubes removed), saying it would be a dignified end, and this is what her daughter would have wanted. His argument was that her daughter had visited a friend in coma before her own accident, and stated „she did not want the same thing happen to her if she was in the same state” (CNN.com, 2009). In absence of such former statements, the consenting proxy (guardian or physician) must rely on their own judgments and that has the possibility to lead to – as it is called – slippery slopes. …… (link it back with involuntary euthanasia)

So far we have looked at the possible differences between the various forms of euthanasia and came to conclude, that, although there are some valid arguments from the causality perspective, and also the current practices worldwide might allow passive euthanasia, but not, or only very rarely allow active euthanasia, we see no major moral distinction between the two forms. From a utilitarian perspective they both lead to the same conclusion, and we even concluded that in some cases active euthanasia may be preferable to passive form, because it brings less suffering to the patient.

We have, however, came to conclude that there is a more significant distinction between voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia, since in the latter the patient’s will may or may not be carried out which can lead to potential ….

The subject of euthanasia is filled with room for interpretation. In the analysis above we have proved that there are various and contradictory approaches, and it seems to be difficult to come to a conclusion about the moral rightness of euthanasia. ( universal standards – Aristotle? ….) A universal argument could even refer back to the Ten Commandments „thou shall not kill”- stating that killing another human being, independent of the reason, is morally wrong and unacceptable. A different approach could be to study the concept of euthanasia case by case and determine the ethical values and the major factors that need to be considered in an attempt to establish some criteria for moral acceptability. In the next part of this paper I will discuss the various factors that influence the euthanasia decision. For each factor the pro and con arguments will be contrasted and examined from a moral perspective.

Value of life – right to die:

Human life itself is commonly taken to be a cardinal good for people, often valued for its own sake. But when a competent, terminally ill patient decides that the best life possible for him/ her with treatment is of such bad quality that it is worse than no further life at all, than continued life is no longer considered a benefit. Human life should not be degraded by reducing the quality of life for the sake of artificially extending the quantity of life. When a person has no quality of life any more because of unbearable pain, then they should not be forced to live, they should be able to choose to die, because at one stage continued attempts to cure are not compassionate any more.

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“I no longer accept this enduring pain, and this protruding eye that nothing can be done about,” Chantal Sebire 52 years old French schoolteacher said. ” I can’t take this anymore.”… “I want to go out celebrating, surrounded by my children, friends, and doctors before I’m put to sleep definitively at dawn.” When she was offered the possibility of passive euthanasia she objected: that passive form of euthanasia was “neither dignified, humane, or respectful of me or my children.”

In this context euthanasia should be a natural extension of patients’ rights to life’ allowing them to decide the value of life and death. Patients should have the right to shorten their lifetime to escape the intolerable anguish the same way as they have a right to discontinue or refuse medical treatments .

Autonomy and dignity (how can we mesure dignity?)

Every person has the right to make free, self-chosen informed decisions about their personal life nad freedom (check…). Since death is one of the most personal things in one’s life, the individual should have a right to make decisions about their owndeath, its time and circumstances

Euthanasia allows patients death with dignity

People involved:

euthanasia itself has a much boarder real impact than just the person who dies – it hurts the family members, and the people who are involved (hospital, physician, nurses, etc) – this should also be taken into consideration …..


The physician’s role is crucial. it is them who know the patient’s condition well, who have access to drugs who have specialized knowledge or appropriate methods, and it is also them who can provide emotional support for the patient and the family. Equally importantly, it is also the physician who has been directly and intimately connected with and responsible for the person’s care, and who the patient typically trusts. The physician’s role is controversial too. One approach is that euthanasia is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer. This is one of the main arguments of the anti-euthanasia movements, which often cite the Hippocratic Oath, that clearly states: “To please no one will I prescribe a deadly drug nor give advice which may cause his death.” (ref) This explicitly forbids killing patients. However, we must understand that Hippocrates did not explicitly say that doctors must preserve life at all costs. Also, we may argue the real word-by-word relevance of the Oath to modern medicine and to the current rights of patients and doctors. The Oath can also be interpreted as a duty of the physician to alleviate pain and suffering. If there is no other option, the doctor, in fulfilling this duty, should be allowed to actively end the patient’s life.


From a utilitarian perspective, euthanasia allows the greatest good for the greatest number of people because (i.) the patients’ suffering is removed, thus they are saved from further agony; (ii) the family’s suffering is alleviated, they can grieve properly, and go on with life; (iii) it frees up medical funds to help other people; and (iv) it frees up medical staff, doctors’ nurses’ time and effort to help others.


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