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Assisted Suicide: An Analysis of its History and Present-Day Effects ENGL 3365: Professional Report Writing
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Assisted Suicide: An Analysis of its History and Present-Day Effects As a result of Washington State’s new physician assisted suicide law, 36 people died last year after purposely obtaining lethal medication from their doctors (Yardley, 2010). Assisted suicide, also known as death with dignity, is the process by which a terminally ill person is helped to commit suicide. This is a controversial topic because of the emotional aspects of death and the religious objections to suicide. The purpose of this literature review is not to persuade whether it is right or wrong, but to give a thorough analysis of the subject so that the reader could formulate his or her opinion from the facts provided. The research question that I considered while writing this was “Should assisted suicide be legalized in all states?” This essay is organized into four parts: a brief history and technical terms regarding it, recent cases, the argument of those who are for it, and the argument of those who are against it. History and Technical Terms of Assisted Suicide Assisted suicide has been around in one form or another for centuries and often seen as a way to preserve one’s honor in ancient times. In Julius Caesar, when Brutus intentionally impaled himself on Strato’s sword, William Shakespeare was alluding to a common Roman practice. Although suicide was used as a way to preserve honor, it was still regarded as a criminal act and penalized the family of the individual by the forfeiture of the person’s goods and property by the Roman government (Cavalier, & Ess, 1997). In the 1600’s, English common law also held forfeiture methods.
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Until 1701, when William Penn stopped the penalty of forfeiture for suicide, the colonies upheld that principle as well. Thomas Jefferson opposed criminal prohibitions of suicide. “For if one can be found who can calmly determine to renounce life, who is so weary of his existence here as rather to make experiment of what is beyond the grave, can we suppose him, in such a state of mind, susceptible to influence from the losses to his family by confiscation? That men in general disapprove of this severity is apparent from the constant practice of juries finding the suicide in a state of insanity; because they have no other way of saving the forfeiture(Cavalier & Ess, 1997)." Suicide has always been a taboo in American culture. More than half of the thirty-seven states in America explicitly prohibited assisted suicide by the year 1868(Cavalier & Ess, 1997). In modern times, the term rational suicide has been created. According to Dictionary.com, rational suicide is the concept that suicide is a reasonable choice by a terminally ill person. There are several types of rational suicide: assisted suicide, physician-assisted suicide, and euthanasia. In the book Suicide: A Christian Response, assisted suicide is defined as “when one individual helps another take his or her own
Assisted Suicide 4 life because the latter lacks the knowledge, courage, or physical capacity to achieve the desired end.” Physician-assisted suicide is defined as “when a physician has provided information, prescriptions, or a suicide machine, knowing that the patient’s intention is suicide (Demy & Stewart, 1998, pg. 62).” The definition of euthanasia in the book is when “one person, motivated by compassion, intentionally and actively kills the other in order to end that person’s suffering(Demy & Stewart, 1998, pg. 62).” Assisted Suicide Cases One of the most recent cases is in Atlanta, Georgia and it involves the assisted suicide of a 58 year-old with mouth and throat cancer. John Celmer was suffocated with an ‘exit bag’, a plastic hood with tubing attached, by four members of the Final Exit Network. Although his death occurred in June 2008, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation did not arrest the four members until February 25, 2009(Pickert, 2009). Though his mother claimed that John Celmer had dealt with throat and mouth cancer for a long time, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said that he had been cancer-free at his time of death. They also said that he was only disgusted by how negatively his many jaw surgeries affected his appearance (Pickert, 2009). Another case occurred this past July in Missouri. Jacob Runge, a 22 year old, had made a suicide pact with his 21 year old friend Alex Harkin. In May, Runge gave his friend a gun which Harkin used to kill himself(Ratcliffe, 2010). After seeing his friend shoot himself in the head, Runge was unable to continue. Runge went to trial for the death, but was not convicted(Ratcliffe, 2010).
Assisted Suicide 5 The Pro-Assisted Suicide Argument Proponents of assisted suicide argue that everyone should be able to have a painless death. John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the episcopal church, believes that assisted suicide is necessary in some cases. “The right to a good death is a basic human freedom. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold aid in dying allows us to view and act on death as a dignified moral and godly choice for those suffering with terminal illnesses(Robinson, 2010).” Some of the most influential organizations in favor of assisted suicide are The Final Exit Network, Compassion & Choices, and the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization. Jack Kevorkian assisted almost one hundred terminally ill people to die between 1990 and 1998. In the St. Petersburg Times, Kevorkian was quoted as saying “My aim in helping the patient was not to cause death. My aim was to end suffering. It’s got to be decriminalized”( C o l a v e c c h i o V a n S i c k l e r , 2 0 0 8 ) . In each of the cases, the individuals had to take the final action in ending their lives. Kevorkian assisted them by hooking them up to machines that he had invented. The Hemlock Society was formed in 1980 and merged with Compassion in Dying to create Compassion & Choices in 2003. “We dream of a time when all Americans can live and die as free people, in dignity and according to their own values,” said the president of Compassion & Choices, Barbara Lee, on the organization’s website(Lee, 2005).
Assisted Suicide 6 The Anti-Assisted Suicide Argument Opponents of assisted suicide argue that killing is immoral, even if a person wants to die. “I understand why a person with a terminal illness would want to commit suicide,” said Dwain Morrison, a member of my church, when I interviewed him. “But suicide, no matter the reason, is still wrong(Interview by author, 2010).” The Coalition Against Assisted Suicide, Not Dead Yet, and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund are some of the most well-known organizations against assisted suicide. The CAAS, or Coalition Against Assisted Suicide, is a group based in Washington State. Many of their members post testimonials on the website. “The tragedy of allowing doctors to help people kill themselves is that it completely abandons the patient, and ignores our responsibility as a civilized society to create systems that enable everyone to die with the true dignity, love, and care that my mother received," stated member Camille Pauley on the CAAS site(Pauley, 2008). After Jack Kevorkian was acquitted in the suicides of two people without terminal diseases, Not Dead Yet was formed. 500 disabled people chanted “Not Dead Yet” at a 1997 Supreme Court rally(Drake, 2010). Eleven other disability rights groups have joined NDY in protesting assisted suicide since then. The NDY group states on their website that “Though often described as compassionate, legalized medical killing is really about a deadly double standard for people with severe disabilities, including both conditions that are labeled terminal and those that are not(Drake, 2010).”
Assisted Suicide 7 Conclusion Assisted suicide is complex because it involves so many people. The disabled, the terminally ill, and the elderly are all subjects in the debate. The question, “Should assisted suicide be legalized in all 50 states?,” cannot be answered at this point in time. The arguments for assisted suicide are logical, but so are the arguments against it. It is important to understand that the full effects of assisted suicide may not be known yet for America because there are only three states that do not penalize it. Personally, I disagree with legalizing assisted suicide. Even though my grandfather spent a year withering away in a nursing home devoid of memories or any semblance of mental clarity, I never would have wanted him to commit suicide.
Assisted Suicide 8 References Cavalier, R, & Ess, C. (1997). Euthanasia. Retrieved from http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/Cavalier/Forum/euthanasia/background/euth/ 9thCircuitB. Colavecchio-Van Sickler, S. (2008, January 16). Dignity for dr. death. St. Petersburg times, Retrieved from h t t p : / / w w w . s p t i m e s . c o m / 2 0 0 8 / 0 1 / 1 6 / S t a t e / D i g n i t y_ f o r _ D r D e m y, T , & S t e w a r t , G . ( 1 9 9 8 ) . S u i c i d e : a c h r i s t i a n r e s p o n s e . K r e g e l Academic and Professional.
Drake, S. (2010). Not dead yet news and commentary . Retrieved from h t t p : / / n o t d e a d ye t n e w s c o m m e n t a r y. b l o g s p o t . c o m /
Interview with Dwain Morrison b y author, November 14, 2010
Lee, B. (2005). Compassion and choices . Retrieved from http://www.compassionandchoices.org/learn
P a u l e y, C . ( 2 0 0 8 ) . C o a l i t i o n a g a i n s t a s s i s t e d s u i c i d e . R e t r i e v e d f r o m \http://noassistedsuicide.com/qanda.html
Pickert, K. (2009, March 3). A brief histor y of assisted suicide. The new york times, Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1882684,00.html
Ratcliffe, H. (2010, July 30). Jury acquits man in rar e assisted suicide case. Stl today, Retrieved from http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime -andcourts/article_5cfda5dc -c648-59b0-bdda-f0e5a4ed1eb0.html
Robinson, B. (2010). Euthanasia and physician -assisted suicide. Retrieved from http://www.relig ioustolerance.org/euthanas.htm
Assisted Suicide 9 Y a r d l e y, W . ( 2 0 1 0 , M a r c h 4 ) . R e p o r t f i n d s 3 6 d e a d u n d e r a s s i s t e d s u i c i d e l a w . T h e n e w yo r k t i m e s , R e t r i e v e d f r o m h t t p : / / w w w . n yt i m e s . c o m / 2 0 1 0 / 0 3 / 0 5 / u s / 0 5 s u i c i d e . h t m l ? _ r = 1
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