Repeating the Past? Assisted Suicide and the Dangerous Possibilities

With Vermont’s recent election of Peter Shumlin, the outspoken proponent for legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide in that state, we are reminded that our mission is to protect all Life, from conception until natural death.  In 1997, the U.S.  Supreme Court decided to leave the legalization of Assisted Suicide up to the states, and in 1998 Oregon became the first state in the United States to do so; Washington was second ten years later in 2008.  Now with a pro-Assisted Suicide governor, will Vermont become state number three?

In 400 B.C., the original Hippocratic Oath, the oath that all doctors swear upon to practice medicine ethically, was written by Greek Physician, and the “Father of Medicine”, Hippocrates.  The Hippocratic Oath clearly states the doctor’s duty to protect human life and swears against helping a person die.  The original version is written: “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.”  A more modern version of oath, written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, has changed the words and skewed the oath that once was held in such high regard: “If it is given me to save a Life, all thanks.  But it may also be within my power to take a Life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty.  Above all, I must not play at God.”
Legalized Physician-Assisted Suicide, a form of Euthanasia, goes against the very thing doctors used to swear to uphold.  So what happened to this point of view and why have the words been changed to more modern, “socially acceptable” rhetoric?  The 14th through the 20th century saw a classical view on assisting suicide: It was morally wrong and punishable by law to aid people to end their Life.  The first law in the United States outlawing assisting suicide was passed in 1828 in New York; other states soon followed.  However, as the world entered the 20th century, views on assisting suicide began to change.  

In 1920, Dr.  Alfred Hoche, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and Karl Binding, a professor of law from the University of Leipzig in Germany published “Permitting the Destruction of Life not Worthy of Life.”  This book was the first work in favor of Euthanasia.  The book stated that if a person requests “assistance in death” that they should be able to obtain it.  Euthanasia is a sugar-coated term meaning “good death” that has been used to give the public a better feeling about what it is: killing a human being.  The term “mercy killing” is often used to explain away the harshness of the act.  Many people would like to think that this “mercy killing” is a benefit to both the patient, who might be in pain, and the family to which the patient’s care and well-being is entrusted.  The name might seem nice, but it still results in a loss of Life by unnatural means. 

There are many different aspects and definitions of Euthanasia.  Euthanasia is the deliberate killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her supposed benefit.  Voluntary Euthanasia is the killing of a person who has asked to be killed.  Non-voluntary Euthanasia is the killing of a person who gave no consent, or had no request to die.  Involuntary Euthanasia is the killing of a person who has explicitly expressed not to be killed.  Assisted Suicide is when a person’s death is achieved with the help of another.  Physician-Assisted Suicide is when a patient has requested a doctor help with suicide. 

As the 20th century progressed, the world saw a rise of evil with Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers' Party, or the Nazis.  The book written by Hoche and Binding would be used to help support the Nazis use of involuntary Euthanasia and to help legitimize the euthanasia and eugenics movements in the 1930s and 1940s.  In October 1939, Hitler empowered physicians to grant a “mercy death” to “patients considered incurable according to the best available human judgment of their state of health.”  Many will argue that Physician-Assisted Suicide is not the same as the horrific acts performed by the Nazis because Holocaust victims did not asked to be killed, whereas the patients requesting Assisted Suicide have made the choice to end their Life. 

It is true that one is considered voluntary while the other is involuntary, however, under the definition, both are considered Euthanasia because they result in the unnatural death of a human being.  Legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide has more layers than just “helping someone end suffering.”  What happens when the people are no longer in charge of their healthcare and the doctors become responsible for determining one’s “value of Life” and deciding the quality of care one deserves or if they deserve care?  Under the new version of the Hippocratic Oath, doctors swear that it “may also be within my power to take a Life” and that they will do so if asked of them.

The shift from the classical view on Assisted Suicide to the modern view is apparent and deeply concerning.  The question is, why?  Maybe someone like Dr. Jack Kevorkian has skewed the perception of what is morally right and wrong; or because countries like Belgium and the Netherlands have begun to legalize Euthanasia, somehow that makes it acceptable.  Perhaps the people of this world have stopped viewing all Life as sacred; that every person, young or old, born or unborn, disabled or able-bodied, conscious or unconscious, mentally capable or incapable, is an essential part of this world who deserves hope, the best care possible, and a chance at Life, not a choice of death. 

Texas Right to Life has a FAQ section on the topic of Euthanasia.  Click here if you would like more information. 
Translation from the Greek by Ludwig Edelstein.  From The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation, and Interpretation, by Ludwig Edelstein.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1943.
Written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, and used in many medical schools today.