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IF MERCY KILLING BECOMES LEGAL

Many people support the right of a terminally ill patient to die - but what if t
he right becomes an obligation??? And what of the potential for abuse by impatie
nt heirs???
Should dying patients have the right to order their doctors not to start or cont
inue medical treatment? Should doctors be protected from prosecution if they sho
rten a patient's life expectancy with pain-killing drugs?
Most of us would answer yes to both questions. But does this mean we need a "rig
ht to die" law? Or is there more to the issue than first meets the eye?
Public discussion of the treatment of dying patients often confuses two separate
issues. First, is the right of the terminally ill person to be allowed to die w
ithout being subjected to invasive medical procedures? Second, is the question o
f whether a dying person should also have the right to hasten his or her own dea
th, and require the help of doctors and nurses to do so.

PATIENTS RIGHTS
It is often overlooked that patients have the common law right to refuse any med
ical treatment. A doctor who treats a patient against his or her express wishes
can be charged with assault. It would be wise to educate people as to their righ
t to refuse treatment. There is no need to convert this well established legal p
rinciple into legislation.
Regardless of the intention of "right to die" or "aid in dying" laws, they could
very easily open the door to active euthanasia.
In the present climate of opinion, it is easy to imagine a doctor giving a letha
l dose of pain-killing drug and then claiming that death was the best way to eli
minate physical suffering. If the doctor could also show that the patient had re
quested the lethal dosage, the court might well interpret the law in the doctor'
s favor.
Many do not find the prospect of legal voluntary active euthanasia in any way al
arming. But two things should give us pause.
First, as a soon-to-be-published Canadian study will show, most health care prof
essionals who work with the dying endorse the patient's right to refuse medical
treatment, but oppose legalizing active euthanasia. The professionals recognize
that if pain is controlled, as it can be in virtually all cases, very few termin
ally ill people ask to be put to death. Second, experience in Holland tells us t
hat voluntary Euthanasia can quickly become involuntary euthanasia.

DUTCH EXPERIENCE WITH EUTHANASIA


Holland is widely regarded as one of the world's most civilized countries. Activ
e euthanasia is legal there, but for the past decade the government has not pros
ecuted doctors who report having assisted their patients to commit suicide.
A recent Dutch government investigation of euthanasia has come up with some dist
urbing findings. In 1990, 1,030 Dutch patients were killed WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT
. And of 22,500 deaths due to withdrawal of life support, 63% (14,175 patients)
were denied medical treatment WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT. Twelve per-cent (1,701 pati
ents) were mentally competent but were NOT CONSULTED.
These findings were widely publicized before the November 1991 referendum in Was
hington State, and contributed to the defeat of the proposition to legalize leth
al injections and assisted suicide.
The Dutch experience seems to demonstrate that the "right to die" can soon turn
into an obligation. This concept is dangerous, and you could find yourself the v
ictim if Euthanasia becomes legal in North America.
We have all heard and some of us have experienced, moving stories of elderly peo
ple in great pain, unable to perform even the most basic human functions, who ha
ve asked to die, or have perhaps brought about their own deaths.
What these stories overlook is that today, in almost all cases, it is possible t
o kill pain without killing the patient. When someone's pain is relieved that pe
rson usually wants to go on living. We need to reflect carefully on the conseque
nces of legalizing active euthanasia. If we enshrine the absolute right to die,
will it then become illegal to intervene to obstruct would-be suicide? Will phar
macists be obligated to sell a lethal dose of hemlock to anyone who is temporari
ly depressed?

POTENTIAL FOR ABUSE


We need to think of the potential for abuse if mercy killing becomes legal. What
if someone stands to inherit one million dollars when Aunt Gladys dies? Might t
he heir not find it tempting to nudge her in the direction of accepting a lethal
injection? Or, if she didn't get the hint, to make her miserable enough to want
it?
If voluntary euthanasia is made legal for "persons of sound mind" there will ine
vitably be tremendous pressure to provide it for those who "would request it if
they were able to" - the mentally ill or handicapped, the senile, etc.
Finally, despite genuine compassion for the suffering of dying people, does ther
e not also lurk in many hearts a less admirable motive? Few people are so tastel
ess as to link euthanasia and health care costs in the same breath, but there is
a widespread few that medical care for the elderly costs more than we can affor
d. These financial pressures will multiply in the coming years as our population
ages.
Many elderly people are already responding to this not-so-subtle message by decl
aring their willingness to die when their lives are no longer productive. Their
reluctance to be a financial burden on the young is admirable, but the long term
consequences could be brutal.
What will happen to the trust that people still feel toward their doctors if our
country follows Holland? What emotion will elderly or seriously ill patients fe
el when the nurse approaches them with a full syringe? How soundly will they sle
ep in the hospital?

THE ALTERNATIVE TO EUTHANASIA


The alternative to legalized euthanasia is not extraordinary, futile treatment t
o hopelessly dying patients. The alternatives are appropriate medical care - inc
luding 1) the withdrawal of treatment upon patient request, or if that treatment
serves no therapeutic purpose; and 2) dispensing drugs as necessary to control
pain. No doctors, laws, or organizations oppose ceasing care when the time to di
e has arrived.

WHAT CAN I DO?


Each of us should talk to our loved ones openly about these subjects. Talk to yu
r doctor, and if you are not comfortable with his or her approach, change doctor
s. Find out about palliative care and Hospice programs in your community. These
emphasize care and comfort for the dying. Support their growth, as this will red
uce the attractiveness of legalized euthanasia. Keep informed about the issue of
euthanasia and make your views known to politicians and the media. Your actions
can help shape the way you and your loved ones will be treated in your last day
s.

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Source: This article is from Life Circle Books, Lewistown, NY.

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