Euthanasia: What It Is and What It Is Not

Given the recent resurgence of the euthanasia debate in New Zealand, it seems timely to revisit what euthanasia actually is and what it is not.  In 2003, Family Life International published a resource And now… Euthanasia.  The following information is directly quoted from that publication.

The Importance of Definitions.  People frequently do not understand the terms of the euthanasia debate and may misinterpret what others are speaking about.  Previous surveys in New Zealand have shown that most people would support euthanasia, but when asked the same questions after being told what euthanasia was, the result was reversed.

Most polled thought that the “right to die” or  “death with dignity” movement was about “pulling the plug” (the right to refuse unwanted, overly burdensome life sustaining treatment).  Overall, people were unaware that the euthanasia movement is about making people die, not letting them die.

Pro-euthanasia advocates commonly blur all distinctions of definitions in order to confuse and then redefine according to their objectives and agenda.

In ancient times euthanasia meant an easy death without severe suffering.  Today, one no longer thinks of this original meaning of the word, but rather of some intervention of medicine whereby the sufferings of sickness or of the final agony are reduced, sometimes also with the danger of suppressing life prematurely.  Ultimately, the word euthanasia is used in a more particular sense to mean “mercy killing”, for the purposes of putting an end to extreme suffering, or saving abnormal babies, the mentally ill or the incurably sick from the prolongation, perhaps for many years, of a miserable life, which could impose too heavy a burden on their families or on society.  By euthanasia is understood “an action or an omission which of itself or by intention causes death, in order that all suffering may in this way be eliminated.  Euthanasia’s terms of reference, therefore, are to be found in the intention of the will and in the methods used.” (Euthanasia:  Recent Declarations of Popes and Bishops).

Euthanasia is derived from two Greek words meaning “pleasant or painless death.” This is one instance, among many in modern society, where a good motive is supposed to make wrong things right.  A merciful motive is supposed to make wrong things right.  A merciful motive (preventing pain or hardship) is held to make right, something which, in itself and in other circumstances, would be adjudged wrong, i.e. putting an innocent person to death and subject to criminal charges.

Let us consider a closely related Greek word “Epivalothanasia” (e-PIV-a-LOW-than-asia) meaning imposed death.  Imposed death on the unborn is abortion.  Imposed death on a newborn or young child is infanticide.  Imposed death on an adult is as euthanasia or assisted suicide (Imposed Death, Human Life Alliance).

While it is publicly paraded as mercy killing the true nature of euthanasia is homicide.

Voluntary Euthanasia:  Death administered to one who asks for it.  Proper informed consent is probably rare as the person giving the consent is influenced by medical conditions.

Involuntary Euthanasia:  Administered without a person’s consent, commonly known as mercy killing.

Active, Direct or Positive Euthanasia:  Killing of the person by administering lethal drugs or other direct means, or by withholding ordinary means of sustaining life.

Ordinary Means:  Food, drink, rest, medicines, protection from exposure, treatments which offer a reasonably hope of benefit and which can be obtained and used without excessive expense, pain or other inconvenience.

Passive, Indirect or Negative Euthanasia:  The decision to withdraw extraordinary means of sustaining life.  It usually refers to removing supportive equipment or drug treatment when a patient has irrevocably entered the process of dying.  This is not true euthanasia but use of the terms gives weight to arguments used by euthanasia advocates.

Extraordinary Means:  Treatments that are gravely burdensome to a patient, and which cannot be obtained or used without excessive expense, pain, or other inconvenience or which if used would not offer a resonably hope of benefit to the patient.  A Court has defined extraordinary means to include food and has ordered the removal of food for the purpose of killing the patient.  This definiation is imprecise and liable to subjective interpretation.  A better definition can be found in Church teaching; “When inevitable death is imminent in spirt of the means used, it is permitted in conscience to take the decision to refuse forms of treatment that would only secure a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life, so long as the normal care due to the sick person in similar cases [including the provision of nutrition and hydration] is not interrupted”  (Declaration on Euthanasia, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).

Bishop James T McHugh of Camden, New Jersey said:  “Food and water does not cure the PVS patient; it maintains life.  It does not cause suffering for the patient nor is it considered exceptional or experimental medical technology.  If the nutrition is discontinued then the patient will die because oa new cause of death has been introduced, that is from a deliberately intended deprivation of nourishment, or in common language, from starvation.”

“When we ask if a treatment is useless, the question is:  ‘will this treatment be useful for this patient; will it benefit the life he or she has?’ When we ask if a treatment is burdensome, the question is; ‘Is this treatment excessively burdensome to the life of the patient?’ The question is not whether this life is useless or burdensome.  We can and should allow the dying to die; we must never intend the death of the living.  We may reject a teaching; we must never reject a life.” (Jewish-Christian Declaration on Euthanasia as reported in Wall Street Journal, Nov 27, 1991).

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