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Ethical Euthanasia:Pros and Cons of Physician Assisted Suicide(PAS)

Updated on August 9, 2012

History of Euthanasia

Photos and Video MAY BE Disturbing For Some

Today, one of the most important public policy debates surrounds the issues of euthanasia and assisted suicide. The difference between euthanasia and physician assisted suicide is simple. ‘Euthanasia is the deliberate act of putting an end to a patient’s life for the purpose of stopping the patient’s suffering.

Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) is the death of a patient as a direct consequence of ‘help’ by a doctor.’The outcome of the debate will profoundly affect family relationships, interaction between doctors and patients, and concepts of basic ethical behavior.

Throughout North America, committing suicide or attempting to commit suicide is no longer a criminal offense. However, helping another person commit suicide is.

The word euthanasia originated from the Greek language: eu means "good" and Thanatos means "death". When the ancient Greeks used the word eu Thanatos, they were not only speaking of dying but of also assisting another to die. Of course, killing oneself or assisting another would only be permitted in cases that were viewed as acceptable, such as a painful disease and someone overwhelmed with grief or in disgrace. It was determined by cultural beliefs and the attitudes of the ancient Greeks if the reasoning was acceptable. Otherwise, the deceased, as well as the deceased family, were viewed as cowardly.

Socrates, the famed teacher and philosopher, committed suicide by drinking hemlock, a drink derived from a poisonous plant, after sentenced to death for allegedly corrupting the youth. Although he felt he was wrongly accused, he thought it a noble act to obey the laws of the state and drank his fate.

In the second and third centuries, Judaic and Christian beliefs changed the way death and the perception of dying. Judeo-Christian doctrine held and still holds the belief that God made life and life is sacred. The Judeo-Christian declared that death was dependant on God’s will. Thus being reinforced with the writings of Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic theologian. He considered euthanasia to be against God’s commandments; especially, “Thou shall not kill.” Aquineas also frowned greatly on suicide believing that this did not leave the person enough time to repent his sins. Through his beliefs, it eventually became religious and legal code that suicide or attempted suicides become a criminal act.

Socrates Drinking Hemlock

 From the fourteenth century on, attitudes about euthanasia began to change. New discoveries through medicine made it possible to live longer. As a result, people began to argue against medical intervention in the dying process that would prolong life. Morphine became the drug for many terminally ill to provide a pain free death. A merciful death in the eyes of many.

During the 1800’s to early 1900’s physicians and legal scholars in the United States as well as Europe began to advocate for mercy killings and the right to decide your own fate. The court system began to try more and more manslaughter and murder cases involving parents who assisted their child to die because of a terminal injury or physical handicap. Juries acquitted them or released them on probation convinced that they could not care for the handicapped child or that a “mercy killing” was appropriate.


During World War II, Adolf Hitler launched a secret euthanasia program that he proclaimed to be mercy killings. This would again change the views of people everywhere. Hitler and the Nazis used the term euthanasia in a deceptive way. Euthanasia was used as a cover up for acts of mass murder. Millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others considered “valueless” were murdered. Approximately 100,000 mentally and physically disabled people moved from hospitals and institutions to the Nazi camps in which they were then gassed. The overall goal was to make a “racially pure” Germany. The Nazis had complete control of society. This is known as the Holocaust. Opponents of euthanasia fear that if mercy killings become legal, the government will use this power to rid its society of “unwanted” and “insignificant” members of society. Proponents counteract that if it were to become legal than it would have to protect the powerless and incompetent .

Gas Chambers for "mercy killings"


Kervorkian Van
Kervorkian Van
Inside of Van
Inside of Van


For centuries, physicians have administered medications to hasten the slow death of the terminally ill. The practice attracted little attention until the 1990’s, when Dr. Jack Kevorkian introduced his “suicide machine” and began to assist dozens of people with terminal illness to their death. Dr. Kevorkian, a Michigan physician and pathologist, earned his nickname of “Dr. Death” early in his career due to his fascination with it. According to Dr. Kevorkian, in his book titled, “Prescription: Medicide The Goodness of Planned Death”, he advised patients and their families on where to obtain carbon monoxide and how it was to be administered under his supervision.

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"Who decides?"

A thin plastic tube would connect a gas canister to a facemask that would cover the patients face and nose. Dr. Kevorkian then would attach an ECG machine to monitor the patient’s heart rate. The patient would turn on the gaswhen he/she felt comfortable and adjusted it as needed to cause death, usually within five minutes. Death verified by the readings of the ECG machine.

Dr. Kevorkian explains that he used the method of gas because, if pure, it has no odor, taste, or smell. This, in his opinion, was the perfect way to commit suicide. Dr. Kevorkian would later change his methods of assisting suicide. He would begin with the administration of first saline, then a sleep-inducing sedative, and finally a lethal drug .

Dr. Kevorkian had a hard time finding the accommodations to fulfill his acts. He would compromise by using his 1968 camper. He says, “The essence and significance of the event are far more important than the splendor of the site where it takes place. “His first patient to use this van as her final destination was Janet Adkins. This patient he met two days earlier. In addition, Adkins would be the first to use his Medicide to end her life. Medicide is Kevorkian’s term for the procedure of self-administration of a lethal drug to take ones life. Adkins was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was of sound mind at the time of her death.

Many supporters of Dr. Kevorkian came to question his intents, as it was understood that he helped those with terminal illnesses or those in much pain, not one of sound mind with a newly diagnosed disease. Although Dr. Kevorkian was convicted of murder and sentenced to jail, the controversies of his actions remain.

Did he demonstrate murder or mercy?

Kevorkian says, `some people want death, and I am going to give it to them.' In a number of interviews, he explains that he did not believe he had ever caused a death, but rather had helped people exercise their “last civil right.' Although not all have approved of his actions, he did publicly make us aware of the question, who decides?

Explaining the "Death Machine"

Legalized Euthanasia in USA

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Those living in Holland have become especially fearful of their doctors. Initially, euthanasia was used with the terminally ill but is currently performed on newborns and infants, those with mental illness and those with little drive for life. One thousand people every year have their lives ended against their wishes by non-voluntary euthanasia.

In the United States, a Death with Dignity law went into effect in Oregon in October of 1997. Although many other U.S. States have tried, Oregon became the first and only state in the U.S. to pass such a law. Washington has since agreed The law allows some terminally ill patients to request assistance when committing suicide. A doctor must say the patient has less than six months to live. The patient must make two oral requests for help and another request in writing. In addition, the patient must convince two physicians that he/she are not depressed or have any other mental illness. This is hard to do if one is diagnosed with a terminal illness. By the end of 2003, 171 individuals have ended their life with the help of lethal prescriptions. The number appears to be leveling-off at fewer than 50 assisted suicides per year. Although Oregon is the only state that legalizes physician assisted suicide, Hawaii passed the "Death with Dignity Act in 2002, which states in part that it will allow,” A terminally ill, competent adult to obtain a prescription for medication to end his or her life in a humane and dignified manner through a self-administered and oral lethal dose. The bill prohibits mercy killings, lethal injections, and active euthanasia…”

In Ohio, that state's Supreme Court ruled in October 1996 that assisted suicide is not a crime. In Virginia, there is no clear case law on assisted suicide, nor is there is a statute criminalizing the act. There is a statute, which imposes civil sanctions on persons assisting in a suicide.The state has an interest in protecting the lives of its citizens. Does that mean the state has a right to determine the proper time to end a life?

Opponents of physician-assisted suicide state that all lives should be protected while other opponents believe that the state has no business determining whose life is “worthy” of saving. Although for different reasons, both sides agree that a ban is necessary. One side approves the ban for the protection of human lives, the other to protect those who would end their lives unnecessarily.

Although the debate continues, ultimately, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is a question of choice, empowering people to have control over their own bodies. Neither the government nor the physician can decide what is best for anyone. America prides itself on freedom. The freedom to make decisions. Whichever way Americans choose to act or react to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is a moral and ethical decision. The future still remains to be seen.


 Gay, Kathlyn. The Right To Die Public Controversy, Private Matter. Brookfield Co: The Millbrook Press, 1993.

Marzilli, Alan. Point/ Counterpoint Physician-Assisted Suicide. Philadelphia PA: The Chelsea House, 2004.

Kevorkian, Jack. Prescription: MEDICIDE The Goodness of a Planned Death. Buffalo NY: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Kiehlmann, Dr. Peter. "Doctors against euthanasia." The Sunday Times. 20 Nov 2005. 6 Dec 2006 <,2090-1180454,00.html>.


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