The word is of Greek origin and literally means "a good death." The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "the act of killing a person painlessly for reasons of mercy." Such killing can be done through active means, such as administering a lethal injection, or by passive means, such as withholding food and water. Click here for more definitions.
In recent years there have been numerous cases of "mercy killing" in the news. They usually involve the killing of ill or incapacitated persons by relatives or friends who plead that they can no longer bear to see their loved ones suffer. Although such killings are a crime, the perpetrators generally are dealt with leniently by our legal system, and the media often portray them as compassionate heroes who took personal risks to save someone else from unbearable suffering.
But euthanasia's biggest threat is even more insidious. There are many documented cases around the country of deaths in hospitals and nursing homes caused by withholding life-sustaining care, including food and water, from vulnerable patients who cannot speak for themselves. For every case that is brought to public attention, there are many more which take place quietly, with no public notice.
While it is illegal to kill someone directly, for example with a gun or knife, in many cases the law has put its stamp of approval on causing death by omitting needed care. Further, many states have "living will" laws designed to protect those who withhold treatment, and there have been numerous court rulings which have approved of patients being denied care and even starved and dehydrated to death. For example, in June, 1987, the New Jersey Supreme Court, in a trio of decisions, approved the starvation death of patients diagnosed as being in the persistent vegetative state" or permanently comatose, even if they had never expressed a desire to have food and water withheld.
Because such deaths occur quietly within the confines of hospitals and nursing homes, often they can be kept from public view. Most euthanasia victims are old or very ill, so their deaths might be attributed to a cause other than the denial of care that really killed them. Further, it is often relatives of the patient who are requesting that care be withheld. In one of the New Jersey cases mentioned above, the court held that decisions to withhold life-sustaining care may be made not only by close family members but also by a number of third parties, and that such decisions need not be reviewed by the judicial system if there is no disagreement between decision makers and medical staff. The court went so far as to rule that a nursing home may not refuse to participate in the fatal withdrawal of food and water from an incompetent patient!
No. "Extraordinary" or "heroic" treatment need not be used when the chance for recovery is poor and medical intervention would serve only to prolong the dying process. But to deny customary and reasonable care or to deliberately starve or dehydrate someone because he or she is very old or very ill should not be permitted. Most of the cases coming before the courts do not involve withholding heroic measures from imminently dying people, but rather they seek approval for denying basic care, such as administration of food and water, to people who are not elderly or terminally ill, but who are permanently incapacitated. These people could be expected to live indefinitely, though in an impaired if they were given food and water and minimal treatment.
No one has the right to judge that another's life is not worth living. The basic right to life should not be abridged because someone decides that someone else's quality of life" is too low. Once we base the right to life on "quality of life" standards, there is no logical place to draw the line. Also, people need not be killed to "put them out of their misery" when they are seriously ill. Almost all pain can be relieved by modern medical techniques, so it is not necessary to kill patients who can't be cured.
No. This kind of death is horrible to undergo and to watch. Nurses and other health care personnel have expressed revulsion at having to participate in cases where the patient is starved and dehydrated, and it is unpleasant for the patient's family, too. That's why some are suggesting that it would be more "humane" to administer a lethal injection instead, so the patient would die quickly and painlessly. (This practice already is widespread in the Netherlands, where an estimated 5-10,000 people are killed each year by their physicians with lethal drugs. Reports from Holland indicate that euthanasia in that country isn't limited to "voluntary" cases and that patients are being killed involuntarily in Dutch hospitals.)
We must foster more positive attitudes towards people with serious and incapacitating illnesses and conditions. Despite the ravages of their diseases, they are still our fellow human beings and deserve our care and respect. We must also enact positive legislation that will protect vulnerable people from those who consider their lives meaningless or too costly to maintain and who would cause their deaths by withholding life-sustaining care such as food and water.