Euthanasia is “the deliberate intervention to bring about the death of another human being,” usually because the life of that person has been judged to be of little value. Euthanasia, which is illegal in Canada, can be divided into two major types, voluntary and involuntary. Involuntary euthanasia is effected towards those who do not participate in the decision making process.
Involuntary euthanasia has been further considered in terms such as direct or indirect, active or passive, etc. Active euthanasia is a direct action causing death, such as a lethal injection. Passive euthanasia is indirect and is usually effect by withholding ordinary care and or treatment necessary to sustain life. The confusion caused by those who defend passive euthanasia can readily be clarified if we take our analysis one step further and consider the motive behind the denial of a required treatment. For example, if we decide to remove intravenous feeding from a patient who cannot eat with the motive or intention to cause death of that patient, we are certainly committing euthanasia just as effectively as would a lethal injection. Let us now restrict our discussion to involuntary, passive euthanasia, which although illegal, is becoming routine in Canada.
How does one come to grips with the enormously complex decisions that must be made in the course of treating patients who are suffering with incurable or lingering illness? For clarity, let us first center our discussion on the patient and then we will consider the aspect of treatment.
Today, many patients are undergoing the scrutiny of those who advocate a “quality of life” ethic. This sounds admirable, until we realize what they intend to do to those who don’t quite measure up. Under this ethic anyone could suddenly find himself in a very dangerous situation should his so called “quality of life” fall below some arbitrary standard. We find this to be discriminatory, dehumanizing and totally unacceptable.
Those of us who wish to maintain respect for each human life are not unrealistic. We know too, that for each person there eventually comes the time in which they proceed into an irreversibly advanced state of dying. This is an appropriate distinction which can properly and legitimately affect the moral propriety of heroic life support efforts.
There are limits to what people can do
To what degree than are we morally obligated to treat a person who as been judged as having a low “quality of life.” Economics and technology can certainly affect our ability to treat. If the technology is still experimental or if a particular treatment is financially impossible, we cannot be morally obligated to use it. It shouldn’t have to be said, but, we must remember that there is no excuse whatsoever for withholding intentionally from any patient the basic necessities of life. Should there be treatment available which could offer reasonable hope for improvement, the traditional ethic would have us take advantage of it. The familiar saying, “We’re doing all we can” fulfills the moral obligation. If it cant’ be said honestly, then something is lacking.
Some divide treatment into two types; ordinary and extraordinary. They say that ordinary care is morally essential while extraordinary care may not be. This might be simplistic, for what was extraordinary a few years ago has in many cases become ordinary. If we are going to use this approach, it is helpful to remember that what would be considered ordinary care and treatment or an otherwise normal patient does not and cannot become extraordinary for someone else just because he may be retarded, or crippled or blind, or poor.