Is Dying Really a Right?
March 31, 1976 was the day the New Jersey Supreme Court gave the parents of Kathleen
Quinland, a young comatose woman, permission to take her off of life support systems. This is the
day which is believed to be the birth of the modern right-to-die movement. Euthanasia, commonly
known as mercy killing, is a way to end the agony of those who are suffering from terminal
illnesses and should be legalized instead of having to be preformed in secrecy.
The medical and ethical concerns focus on the health care delivery system as it impacts
end-of-life decisions. There are three categories that this can be broken into. They are the quality
of life, how decisions at the end of life are made, and the physician’s changing role in end-of-life
The quality of life is constantly being redefined. The courts now support an individualistic
approach to euthanasia, rather than imposing a society-wide prescription to what they feel
constitutes the quality of one’s life. Since the quality of life can only be determined by the
individual, directives allow individuals, or should they become incompetent, their families to
express their preferences (Roberts, 23).
Because only the individual or their families can decide what that particular persons
quality is they should have the right to choose if euthanasia is an option. For those who suffer
from terminal illnesses, euthanasia would be a way to escape from intolerable pain that cannot be
alleviated by pain relieving drugs (Minois, 131).
However those who oppose euthanasia believe that if a person has a terminal illness that
person should not be assisted in death and should have as much aid in staying alive as possible.
They believe that as long as the brain is still functioning then there is still hope, even though
without the life support system the terminally ill would otherwise be unable to survive (Roberts,
26). According to the Roman Catholic Church, there is an obligation to continue to supply
nutrition and hydration to the unconscious patient (Larue, 88).
The brain of the patient may still function but it would not be in a normal way. They
would be conscious but they wouldn’t be capable to express how they are feeling. There would be
no way of telling how the patient feels or what their needs or wants may be, and contrary to what
they think, the body of the patient will most likely not survive without the aid of the life support
systems (Battin, 72). Even if the patient were to come out of this vegetative state he or she would
be severely disabled, so constant medical attention would be required for the rest of their lives
There is a fine line in defining the rights of the individual, responsibilities of the doctor,
and the criteria used in making end-of-life decisions. How decisions are made is a very
complicated one. The decision should be between the patient and the doctor. Since the patient is
the only one that can determine how he or she feels about his or her position, it is ultimately up to
them but it shouldn’t be hidden from their family and friends (Roberts, 138).
The timing and the manner of death are personal decisions. It should not be made by
doctors, a hospital, or courts, but by the patients, unless deemed incompetent. If they are deemed
incompetent then the decision should be made by the family (Woodman, 163). If patients openly
had the right to choose weather or not they want to be assisted in suicide it would give them a
chance to say goodbye to their friends and loved ones. It would also help them to gain peace
However some believe that the state is charged with the responsibility of making sure that
people’s lives are protected. It is not right to let a physician take or assist a patient in taking his or
her own life. It is considered to be murder because the attending physician would be helping take
away the life of an innocent patient (Battin, 282). It is also believed that people choose euthanasia
due to a doctor’s lack of training, believing that they are often overlooking the patient’s
A condition that may be bearable to one person, may be unbearable to another. If
euthanasia was legal many physicians and interns would learn to look at the discomforts of the
patients more closely and prescribe more specific medications to relieve their pain and make
things more comfortable. In some extreme cases it is more humane to end a patients suffering then
A physician’s role should not be limited to only aid and comfort of his or her patients. The
physician also helps the friends and families of his of her patients to understand what is happening
and what is being done about it. The role of the doctor should also be to help end the suffering of
a patient as well as to ease the emotional pain of the patient’s family, even if it means ending a
When a patient has a terminal illness the physician’s role changes. It is first to help the
patient live better for as long as he or she can. This means prescribing medications to help relieve
pain. When that is no longer possible the doctors role changes. It then becomes to help the patient
in the transition towards death (Battin, 263).
However those opposing euthanasia say that physicians need to just look at the
Hippocratic Oath. It states “I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any
such counsel.” Some even believe that doctors should not even prescribe medication to help ease
the pain of some. They believe that pain is meant to be endured and as long as it is bearable, and
that it should not be suppressed by any means (Battin, 216).
The medical profession moved away from the Hippocratic Oath in the early 1900’s. The
international Code of Medical Ethics states “A Physician Shall act only in the patient’s interest
when providing medical care which might have the effect of weakening the physical and mental
condition of the patient.” If a patient asks to be taken off of life support or to receive more
medication in hope of death, then it is the patients request. The patient understands and is well
aware of what could happen (Woodman, 148-9).
Euthanasia should become legal for physicians to practice. It would give a terminally ill
person a choice, and it would also give people a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones.
Terminally ill persons, if they wish to choose euthanasia, would be able to stop the pain that
medications cannot alleviate. And it would also give a person a little piece of mind.
Battin, Margaret P., Rosamond Rhodes, and Anita Silvers, eds. Physician Assisted Suicide:
Expanding the Debate. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Larue, Gerald A. Playing God: 50 Religions Views on Your Right to Die. Wakefield, Rhode
Island: Moyer Bell, 1996.
Minois, Georges. History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture. Baltimore and
London, Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.
Roberts, Carolyn and Martha Gorman. Euthanasia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 1996.
Woodman, Sue. Last Rights: The Struggle over the Right to Die. New York and London:
Plenum Trade, 1998.