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What is euthanasia? Is it the same as physician-assisted suicide?

What is euthanasia?

Picketers in Oregon stand for choice in the right to die
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In humans euthanasia is the induction of death in a person who has a terminal illness. This act is also known as a mercy killing because it is assumed to be committed as an act of compassion; carried out to end suffering and pain. There are various types of euthanasia; voluntary, involuntary, active and passive. In voluntary euthanasia, the patient grants consent to have their life ended by a healthcare professional. Involuntary euthanasia occurs without a patient granting consent to end their life. Active euthanasia takes place when a terminally ill patient is given a drug to induce death. In a passive euthanasia, the patient’s medical treatment that is sustaining life is terminated; allowing death to occur.

Is euthanasia the same as physician-assisted suicide?

There may be a thin line between euthanasia and assisted-suicide. But these two acts are defined differently. In physician-assisted suicide there are cases where death may not occur without it. But in euthanasia, death is always inevitable due to the patient’s terminal illness. A lot of moral issues surround both euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Many believe that no one ever has the right to end another person's life and regardless of a terminal illness the act is unethical. On the other hand, there are also many who wholeheartedly believe that there is nothing more unethical than allowing a person to suffer with a terminal illness; all along knowing that there is no recovery.

The morals and ethics of euthanasia and physician assisted-suicide produce a lot of crowded emotions. For example, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was an American medical doctor, an assisted-suicide activist who was convicted of second degree murder for his direct role in physician-assisted suicide cases. He was looked down upon by people all over the world. But even though many health professionals looked down on Dr. Kevorkian for his participation in physician-assisted suicide, there were also many healthcare professionals who agreed with him. And the healthcare professionals who agreed with his tactics would not dare come out in the open and show their support. If they did show their support they would have received quite a bit of scrutiny.

Does a patient have the right to die?

Patients do have rights. The Patient Bill of Rights Act was originally developed in 1973. This act allows every patient to be involved in the provision of their healthcare. In 1992 this act was revised. So it is well-established that patients have rights. The million dollar question we are concerned about is whether or not a patient has the right to die.

In the United States, the majority of the states do not have a law supporting a person's will to end their life. However, there are a few states that do have this law and honor it. Several unusual medical cases have contributed to the enactment of the right to die law in the United States. As a result, 5 states have passed laws to allow terminally-ill patients who are competent to request lethal drugs to end their life. The first state that passed a constitutional right to die law was Oregon in 1994 with Washington passing a similar law in 2008, Montana in 2009, Vermont in 2013, and New Mexico recently supporting the right to die law this month, 2014. These laws are called "death with dignity laws". Connecticut, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey have introduced bills similar to the "death with dignity laws" and are waiting on house votes in support and/or court decisions.

What is an advance directive?

An advance directive is a signed document; granting permission for healthcare provision prior becoming permanently unconscious and/or prior death. This document is provided in advance, and will allow a person to legally accept or reject medical care in the case of an emergency. This advance document is called a living will and is honored by all states. If a living will actually states that a person does not want end of life care, it therefore upholds that person's right to die.

Where does Georgia stand with a law that supports euthanasia?

In Atlanta, a top court did not support Georgia's restriction law of assisted-suicide. The Supreme Court unanimous ruled that restricting assisted suicide is actually a violation of freedom of speech. And as a result, in 2009 four members of the Final Exit Network group who were charged with assisting a fifty-eight year old man who had a terminal illness to die would not have to stand trial. No, the state of Georgia does not have an actual law that forbids assisted-suicide. However, what the state of Georgia does have is a law that bans public advertising of assisted-suicide. This law was embraced mainly to prevent the likes of physician-assisted suicides; the acts that were first introduced by Dr. Kevorkian in 1994.

Criminal verdicts in euthanasia acts

Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicides are ongoing and every individual has a right to agree or not agree with these actions. There are physician-assisted suicide laws all around the world, and just because someone agrees with human euthanasia-type behavior doesn't mean that they are going to partake in these actions. There are many who may feel they have the right to end the long-suffering of a loved-one, a friend, etc. However, we all know or we should at least know that there are consequences for violating the law. Cases of mercy-killings have manifested in criminal prosecutions in the United States. One example, Charles Cullen, a 43 year old male nurse in New Jersey was charged with killing 2 patients in 2003 by lethal injections. He took it upon himself to make the decision that these patients should die. Cullen admitted to killing 30-40 patients throughout his 16 years as a healthcare professional. However, after a thorough investigation experts determined that Cullen had murdered approximately 400 patients; making him the most prolific serial killer in American history. He may have considered his acts merciful but the law saw things quite differently. Healthcare professionals are not the only ones who get involved in these so called merciful acts. One example of a mercy killing in a lay person occurred in Griffin Georgia, a town 38 miles outside of Atlanta. In this town Carol Carr, a 63 year old mother was prosecuted and convicted for her acts of mercy. In 2003 the state of Georgia sentenced her to 5 years in prison and 5 years' probation for fatally shooting her adult sons in their nursing home beds. Both of her sons suffered with Huntington's disease, a terminal illness. She was tired of their long-suffering and decided to take it upon herself to kill them and put them out of their misery. She was convicted because she broke the law. And even though she felt she was putting her sons out of their misery and she was merely being merciful, the law saw things differently and charged her with a double murder.

Listed above are only a couple of cases resulting in criminal charges for mercy killings. In both cases, the law was violated. So regardless of whether one agrees or not with euthanasia and/or assisted-suicide, if a law is violated consequences always result.

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