Euthanasia literally means ‘good death’ (in Greek eu=good and thanatos=death). Today, the term euthanasia is used to describe the intentional killing of a human being for the benefit of that person. Broadly, the term is used to describe the compassionate killing or letting die of a terminally ill patient. Euthanasia can occur through a direct action (such as lethal injection) or an act of omission (such as failing to provide necessary and usual care for food and water provisions).It is illegal in most countries of the world.
 Types of Euthanasia
The term euthanasia is has no fixed definition but often covers a broad spectrum of act or omissions that result in a person’s death on compassionate grounds. It is however, important to understand the different terms associated with euthanasia to gain insight into this highly debated topic.
- Active or voluntary euthanasia
Active or voluntary euthanasia is term used to describe a situation when a person requests to be killed. Associated with voluntary euthanasia is the concept of assisted suicide. Assisted suicide is where someone provides the individual with the information and means to take his or her own life with the intent that the individual will us it for this purpose. In cases where a doctor helps a person kill themselves, it is known as physician assisted suicide.
- Non-voluntary euthanasia
This describes a situation when the person did not make a request to be killed and do not give consent, for example infants, people with mental retardation and comatose patients. Some literature makes the distinction between non-voluntary euthanasia and involuntary euthanasia, which is described as a situation where the person being killed made an express wish to the contrary.
- Passive euthanasia
This term often causes confusion. For euthanasia to occur there must be the intent to kill. However, the term passive euthanasia has come to describe actions that may not strictly be euthanasia in this sense. This term is usually applies to actions such as the ceasing of unwanted or burdensome medical treatment or such that does not provide any benefit to the person. It may also apply to the use of heavy doses of pain relieving drugs even though such large doses may result in death. This is often called death by double effect.
- Mercy killing
Mercy killing describes situations where family members of friends decide to take the life of loved one to end their suffering, for example, shutting down life support systems of patients in vegetative states.
 The ethical debate surrounding euthanasia
Like abortion, the subject of euthanasia is under a great deal of scrutiny and debate. The nature of this debate is largely ethical. It raises a number of difficult questions – is it right to commit suicide? Is it ok to put others to death at their own request? Is it ethical to assist them to die?
The reason this debate has surfaced and become prominent over the last few decades is that the nature of death is changing. With advances in medical technology, human beings are living longer than ever before. The quality of life is also changing. In the United Stated for example, almost everyone has enough to eat and is eating higher on the food chain. Therefore the diseases and nature of death has also changed. People are dying later and of different diseases. Traditionally, death was a family affair that took place at home after a short bout of illness or an accident. Today, there are hospitals and care facilities which can prolong life for months and even years with technology.
Considering the change in the nature of death, it is expected that apart from how and where we die, the issue of how we should be allowed to die will emerge.
 Did You Know?
- A poll in May 2006 found 65% of Americans answered “yes” to the question “"When a person has a disease that cannot be cured, do you think doctors should be allowed by law to end the patient's life by some painless means if the patient and his family request it?”
- In 1996, a euthanasia bill went into effect in Australia's Northern Territory but it was overturned by the Australian Parliament in 1997.
- It is true that a Dutch government-initiated study, the Remmelink Report, has indicated that Dutch physicians have sometimes terminated the lives of their patients without their consent. This was, almost invariably, when the patients were very close to death, and no longer capable of giving consent. In other cases, there had been discussions with the patient in which the patient had expressed a wish to die, but there had not been a formal request.
- Jack Kevorkian, M.D., the American pathologist imprisoned for his role in the euthanasia of Thomas Youk, told reporters that he would not choose assisted suicide for himself. He admitted to helping more than 130 people end their lives and is nicknamed ‘Dr. Death’.
 The Case for Euthanasia
The case for euthanasia is usually made by campaigners and the relatives of patients suffering severe illnesses. Sometimes, people who are suffering incurable diseases themselves argue for euthanasia through media and legal systems.
The pro-euthanasia argument revolves around the patient’s ‘right to die’. Proponents argue that they should have the liberty to choose their end to life especially when they are suffering a great deal of pain from an incurable disease or physical handicap. They should not be forced to stay alive under unbearable conditions. Therefore they should have the right to die with dignity.
 The Case against Euthanasia
The case against euthanasia is propounded by groups such as the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force and pro-life religious and other organisations. There are a number of arguments against euthanasia. The ‘right to die’ is contested by anti-euthanasia proponents. They argue that every human being has the right to die and should commit suicide if they choose not to live. Euthanasia, grants someone else the ‘right to kill’ – that is doctors, relatives and friends can directly and intentionally end someone’s life.
Also, the anti-euthanasia argument questions the ability of severely ill patients to make an objective decision to die. People with painful, terminal illness may be depressed and frustrated, which may lead to their having distorted judgement. People who have mental illnesses in conjunction with painful or terminal illnesses may also not be able to make this decision objectively.
In accepting euthanasia, its misuse must also be considered. According to S. Wolhandler,(in the Cornell Law Review 69:363-382. (1984), Voluntary active euthanasia for the terminally ill and the constitutional right to privacy), “once society accepts that life can be terminated because of its diminished quality, there is no rational way to limit euthanasia and prevent its abuse.”
Euthanasia is considered a slippery slope – where patients may be coerced into wanting to die or are killed by family members for dubious reasons under the guise of euthanasia.
 Physicians and euthanasia
Physicians are also divided in the subject of euthanasia. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said in 400 B.C “I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel’. Physicians are expected to live by this Hippocratic oath. At the same time, they are to look after their patients and manage their pain. In certain cases, this management of pain may result in the death of the patient. Here too, the lines are blurred and the debate continues.
 Where is euthanasia legal?
Euthanasia is legal in very few countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. Many countries are becoming aware of the euthanasia debate and considering how to tackle this issue. Oregon in the United States, is the first state to accept euthanasia through its ‘Death with Dignity’ law. So far, no studies have shown that the introduction of these laws have caused a wide scale problem.
- Definitions of euthanasia
- Introduction to the ethics of euthanasia
- Is euthanasia ethical?
- What is euthanasia?
- Euthanasia FAQ’s
- The ethics of euthanasia
- Facts and statistics on Euthanasia
- Little known facts about the euthanasia debate
- Getting the facts right on Dutch euthanasia
- Who is Dr Kevorkian?