The issue at hand is whether physician-assisted suicide should be legalized for patients who are terminally ill and/or enduring prolonged suffering. In this debate, the choice of terms is central. The most common term, euthanasia, comes from the Greek words meaning “good death. ” Sidney Hook calls it “voluntary euthanasia,” and Daniel C. Maguire calls it “death by choice,” but John Leo calls it “cozy little homicides. ” Eileen Doyle points out the dangers of a popular term, “quality-of-life. ” The choice of terms may serve to conceal, or to enhance, the basic fact that euthanasia ends a human life.
Different authors choose different terms, depending on which side of the issue they are defending. Maguire argues by defining his terms. After explaining on page 447 how difficult it is to decide “to impose death,” he says on page 448 that it is a moral argument, not a legal argument. In the final sentence of the fifth paragraph, he contends that “morality and legality are not identical. ” His transition, the first sentence of the sixth paragraph, invites the reader to “face up to the objection.
The objection, according to the fourth paragraph, is “that there is no moral way in which death could be imposed on a person who is incapable of consent because of youth or irreversible loss of consciousness. ” The fifth paragraph begins by admitting the truth of this objection. These transitions tie together an argument that seems to agree with the objection, while defining the terms of the argument. When all the terms have been defined, however, the objection is rejected. He argues that, in some cases, it would be “morally good… to terminate a life” (p. 448).
The terminology here is neutral; we are not talking about a good death, or a bad death, but simply an end to life. It is not murder, and it is not suicide. It is not emotionally loaded at all. In real life, however, the question of euthanasia is, and should be, filled with emotion. Maguire acknowledges the argument that acceptance of the practice of euthanasia could lead society down the path toward the “mass murder of physically and mentally defective persons” (p. 449). He argues, however, that the specific case under examination is “drastic,” and our behavior in a “drastic” case cannot be generalized to our behavior in normal situations.
In fact, if we keep that particular defective child alive, then we are defining our terms wrongly. We are committing the “error of interpreting the sanctity of life in merely physical terms” (p. 449). First, he uses the example of a fetus, which is not yet a person, but which is capable of becoming a person. This image is followed by a transition, at the end of the tenth paragraph, to his next idea, which is that life might sometimes “be terminated when other sacred values outweigh its claims to life in a conflict situation” (p. 49).
Maguire’s idea of the correct definition of “the sanctity of life,” in the eleventh paragraph, is a “generic notion” that fails to take account of “sacred human dignity,” and he proposes that “the sanctity of death might here take precedence over a physicalist interpretation of the sanctity of life” (pp. 449-450). In other words, he is offering new terms that reverse the old terminology. The terminology is central to his argument. As soon as we replace Maguire’s terms with simpler words, his argument begins to fall apart.
For example, if we replace “termination of life” with the simpler term, “death,” a chill fills the space once occupied by the more neutral, more technical term. Termination of life is scientific, clinical, and easy. Death, on the other hand, is cold, frightening, and difficult. In at least every third paragraph, Maguire reminds the reader that he is putting off the question of who should make the decision. He is only arguing that, in some cases, termination of life is more morally acceptable than prolonging life.
Using another example, Maguire argues, “The decision to let live is not inherently safe” (p. 451). However, his terminology is deceptive–”safe” is not the same kind of term as “moral. ” Often, the morally right course of action is not safe. For example, if I do not murder my neighbor, then tomorrow my neighbor might murder me, especially if we do not like each other. But my possible future safety does not make it right for me to murder my neighbor. This kind of thinking, in terms of safety, can lead to vigilante actions, such as lynching. Perhaps some people do not forgive others for letting them live.
Perhaps they do not feel that they have the freedom to commit suicide, but they do not have a right to demand that someone else commit murder, just to relive them of the responsibility of making their own life-and-death decisions. Maguire talks about risk, but there is no such thing as life without risk. Anyone can suddenly become ill, or get into an automobile accident, or simply grow old. In addition, perfectly normal, healthy people sometimes live in misery, poverty, and want. Should they be offered “termination of life” as a moral alternative?
Maguire keeps avoiding the real question: Who is to decide when death is better than life? Maguire never answers the all important question: Who should decide? He simply holds that, in certain drastic situations, “the imposition of death would seem a good” (p. 452). John Leo does not use a neutral term, such as “termination of life. ” He uses the legal term, “homicide. ” To point out the dangers of accepting the practice of euthanasia, Leo uses the example of the Netherlands, where, he says, “euthanasia is positioned as a socially approved crime that requires some sort of vague pro forma public airing” (p. 462).
His transition to the next stage of his argument is that “this airing is usually nonexistent. Most killings go unreported and uninvestigated” (p. 462). Leo’s term, “killing,” is emotionally loaded, especially when compared to Maguire’s sanitized, hygienic term, “the termination of life. ” Words such as “homicide” and “killing” evoke images of street gangs and desperate criminals. Maguire’s terminology, on the other hand, evokes images of doctors, hospitals, and healing. When Leo puts the phrase, “physician-assisted suicide” in quotation marks, he is telling us that this phrase is merely a euphemism for murder.
Nice-sounding words conceal the truth that “at least every sixth or seventh case of euthanasia in the Netherlands is not ‘physician-assisted suicide’ but homicide, approved by no one, reported to no one” (p. 462). In other words, the Netherlands has solved the problem of euthanasia by ignoring it. Most people know that problems usually get worse when we ignore them. Leo then makes a transition to an issue that was current in 1991, when he wrote his article. Initiative 199 was on the ballot in Washington. This initiative offered a euthanasia plan much like the one in the Netherlands.
Leo uses the terms “fudgers and blurrers” to describe the doctors who practice euthanasia here, as well as in the discussion of the situation in the Netherlands. They are not competent doctors, according to this terminology. Instead, they are slapstick comedians. Warning that the statistics on euthanasia would be clouded by classifying mercy killings as natural deaths, Leo reminds us that Initiative 199 has no “strong guarantees that all deaths will be truly voluntary” (p. 462). Leo is not alone in his fears.
An article in the magazine, Commonweal, attacks the initiative with its title, “Dial 119 for Murder. ” While admitting that modern technology sometimes prolongs life for no good reason, at great expense in terms of both money and suffering, this article argues that the solution certainly “is not physician-assisted, state-legitimized suicide. Rather, it is the watchful and loving care of the dying by society, and the assurance of their comfort throughout the natural and inevitable process of death” (p. 452). Here, at last, is the heart of the matter.
Proponents of euthanasia argue that they wish to end suffering, yet they seem unwilling to explore any means of relieving suffering, other than death. Later in 1991, an article in National Review attacked situation ethics in general, and euthanasia in particular, equating it with “the forced sterilization of those whom we deem unfit to procreate” (p. 45). Maguire’s argument, which depends on drastic situations, is a prime example of situation ethics. The loving thing to do, in certain situations, according to Leo, is to kill the suffering patient.
Situation ethics ignores moral and ethical values. Instead of absolute standards of right and wrong, this school of thought must look at each individual situation before deciding what is right or wrong. Eileen Doyle begins with absolute values, calling the American Constitution as an authority. Persons, Doyle says, have a “right to life and other rights. The state cannot bestow or take away these inalienable rights because they do not belong to the state to dispose of, but rather to each individual human being” (p. 463).
On this basis, Doyle insists that euthanasia, which she defines as “(killing human beings who are innocent of unjust aggression on others’ lives) cannot be legalized” (pp. 463-464). Therefore, she argues, proponents of euthanasia must use terms that define euthanasia in ways that get around the Constitution. The terminology makes it seem that euthanasia does not violate the Constitution, when in fact it does. In fact, the pro-euthanasia people redefine some people, in order to make the, eligible for euthanasia. According to Doyle, definition of terms is crucial to the issue.
First, according to Doyle, they must change the terminology of the argument. They attack “the sanctity of life” as a religious value, replacing it with the secular term, “quality of life. ” Doyle does not stop here, however. She points out that the secular humanist view is just as religious as the views of any recognized religion. In fact, the Supreme Court recognized secular humanism as a religion protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. The “quality-of-life ethic,” therefore, is a “religious belief of secular humanism” (p. 464).
According to this ethic, a person who does not enjoy a certain quality of life becomes a “non-person,” and therefore we can kill this non-person without actually committing murder. Words, however, do not change reality. Doyle’s essay turns to quickly to a listing of the results of this policy, without further exploration of the issue of defining terms. Doyle’s argument would be strengthened if she reminded the reader that the Nazis used terms such as the final solution” to disguise their acts of murder against the Jewish people during World War II.
Instead, she goes back to the glowing phrases of the Constitution, which guarantee liberty and justice for all persons, even for defective persons, old persons, ill persons, and injured persons. All of these arguments depend on terms which must be defined. Definition is everything. The main thing, however, is that somebody is killing somebody else, and that is wrong. Therefore, the definition always means that somebody is doing something that is wrong.