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The Ethical and Legal Implications of Euthanasia

The Ethical and Legal Implications of Euthanasia

Generally, the topic of euthanasia has resulted in hot debates among all stakeholders, including healthcare professionals and legal experts, due to the ethical and legal issues associated with the topic. It affects both patients and their healthcare providers. Over the years, the debate on euthanasia has focused on suffering patients with terminal illnesses. However, the topic has extended to include even patients with mental illnesses like depression. Therefore, it is appropriate to look at the controversy surrounding euthanasia in a recent case study. Euthanasia is a controversial topic that requires further inquiry to fully understand different opinions offered by the opposing sides and the ethical implications associated with it.

Recent Case Study

The case published in the Catholic Herald involves a 29-year-old woman who underwent euthanasia following a series of mental illnesses. According to the author, despite being physically fit, the woman was given a lethal injection, having been granted her wish to die by the court after eight years of legal battles. In her argument, the woman claimed she had experienced extreme bouts of depression that had made her life intolerable. The case raised concerns among various stakeholders, including politicians who lamented how dangerous euthanasia could be.

Ethical Issues Involved in the Case Study

Generally, the case study raises various ethical dilemmas related to euthanasia, including when it is justifiable to end one’s life. In addition, the topic also opens up a whole discussion on the limitations of patients’ autonomy and the ethical responsibilities of healthcare professionals, as highlighted in the bioethical principles of beneficence and maleficence. Concerning autonomy, questions are raised regarding the patient’s capability to understand the decision that she was making. With superior knowledge and training, the physician is best positioned to help make an ethical decision that is in the patient’s best interest to protect patients from irresponsible choices. For patients to make an autonomous decision, they should be mentally capable of comprehending the information of the decision. In the case study, the patient has a mental health condition. Hence, her ability to make rational decisions is in question.

The Context of Euthanasia

The case study highlights euthanasia, particularly among patients with mental conditions such as depression. Historically, numerous attempts have been made to legalize euthanasia, but minimal success has occurred. The euthanasia discussion in psychiatry was awakened after the Nazi Holocaust when thousands of psychiatric patients were gassed or poisoned to death under the ‘euthanasia program’. According to Felder, the Nazi euthanasia program was used by scientists, mainly physicians, to conduct medical experiments. It is out of the scientific experiments of the Nazi physicians that ‘The Nuremberg Code’ was established to guide future experiments on human subjects.

Additionally, politicians have had their hand in the matter by sponsoring bills to legalize the act, with some opposing such attempts and publicly making their views known. From a social perspective, euthanasia has continued to be controversial, with many societies coming up to air their opinion. In the traditional Christian context and culture, euthanasia is viewed as morally unacceptable due to human life’s sacred nature. However, other social groups support euthanasia with the thought of extending dignity to death, such as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. As such, there is no single available societal perspective regarding the issue of euthanasia. Hence, it is important to society as it touches on the critical matters of life and death.

The Differing Perspectives on Euthanasia

The individuals and societies in support of euthanasia have always centered their opinion on patient suffering. They argue that patients in the terminal stages of illness experience excruciating pain and have poor wound healing, poor social interactions, and many other aspects of physical suffering. According to the proponents, euthanasia is a more merciful response to relieve this suffering, especially where the quality of life is jeopardized. Among the patients with mental illnesses, the proponents argue that some mental conditions, including severe depression, induce intense suffering and are unresponsive to treatment. Additionally, the proponents note that since the patients request most cases of euthanasia, it is a way for physicians to show respect for personal autonomy. Thus, to the proponents, euthanasia relieves undue suffering and is in harmony with respect for autonomy and the individual’s right to a dignified death.

Contrary to the proponents’ arguments, the opponents base their argument on the intrinsic wrongness of killing, professional integrity, and the possibility of potential abuse. According to Naga and Mrayyan, willingly ending one’s life is inconsistent with human rights, and alternatives should be sought to relieve the patient’s suffering and improve their quality of life. Furthermore, Naga and Mrayyan note that administering lethal substances by physicians to end life is unethical according to guiding medical ethical practices, especially the Hippocratic Oath that restricts physicians from administering such substances to their patients or aiding their patients to die. They also note that legalizing euthanasia could lead to its potential abuse and a slippery slope where individuals will use it to escape chronic but manageable medical conditions.

Evaluation of the Arguments and Their Ethical Implications

The arguments presented by both the proponents and the opponents seem to be entirely influenced by one’s culture, moral philosophy, and personal experiences. Those opposed to euthanasia seem to be influenced by their religious cultures. Specifically, Christian teachings view life as sacred and state it should not be terminated prematurely at any cost. On the other hand, the proponents seem to subscribe to the Stoic philosophy that has always defended suicide as a reasonable departure from life, especially when intense suffering is involved. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that personal life experiences with suffering may make one choose to end one’s life. For example, seeing a cancer patient suffer may make individuals consider euthanasia if diagnosed with a similar terminal disease, as they will not want to experience the same ordeal.

While both the proponents and those opposed to euthanasia have valid arguments, myriads of ethical issues surround each side’s perspective. It is indeed true that certain illnesses, including mental conditions, lead to severe suffering and reduced quality of life. However, ethical issues arise regarding the ability of the patients requesting euthanasia to make autonomous decisions. For example, Appelbaum notes that it is common for depressed patients to reject treatment and even request death, yet change their decision once the depression is resolved. Accordingly, this raises the ethical question concerning the impact of the mental illness itself on the patient’s decision-making. It has also been observed that most patients are only resistant to one form of treatment and that other options should be tried to relieve their suffering.

Furthermore, it is noted that the right to autonomy is not always absolute and that physicians have the legal and ethical responsibility to override the patient’s decisions and continue pursuing alternative treatment in response to the patient’s symptoms and request a dignified death. Thus, the argument regarding patients’ autonomy to end their lives is weak. On the other hand, the opponents’ unethical medical practice mainly touches on physicians’ ethical responsibilities to act in good faith and protect their patients from harm. In line with non-maleficence and beneficence principles, physicians cannot administer lethal dosages to their patients as it causes more harm than good. Additionally, the claim of potential abuse if euthanasia is legalized, holds grounds owing to several reported cases, including ones with mental illnesses, where euthanasia has been performed without following due process in countries where it is legalized. Thus, the ethical questions raised by those opposed to euthanasia regarding non-maleficence, benevolence, and potential abuse are strongly supported by evidence.

Personal Perspective on Euthanasia

The issue of euthanasia among depressed patients will continue to dominate medical discussions. Subjectively, the opponents of euthanasia seem to offer a strong argument. Notably, depression can be treated just like other mental conditions, and symptoms can be controlled where treatment is impossible. Patient autonomy among psychiatric patients is in question. Mental illnesses tend to affect one’s way of thinking, and suicidal ideations are common phenomena among depressed patients. I have dealt with patients who have changed their stance on ‘mercy killing’ after a series of professional counseling sessions and continued treatment. Thinking about these experiences concerning my patients and the ethical dilemmas related to euthanasia makes me view it as an undesirable event in medical practice that I will not want to engage in.


The topic of euthanasia is controversial based on the numerous arguments aired by those in its support and those who are against it. The case study published in the Catholic Herald offers a good scenario through which the effects of euthanasia can be accessed and its ethical implications reviewed. While the Pro-euthanasia argument is based on the need to relieve undue suffering, respect autonomy, and grant the right to a dignified death, the opponents have emphasized the intrinsic wrongness of killing, professional integrity, and the possibility of a “slippery slope”. Overall, the ethical issues addressed autonomy, beneficence, and non-maleficence. Subjectively, the ethical questions touching upon professional integrity, especially the need to observe non-maleficence and doing good, are strong enough to make me offer my support against euthanasia.

📎 References:

1. Appelbaum, P. S. (2017). Should mental disorders be a basis for physician-assisted death? Law & Psychiatry, 68(4), 315-317. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ps.201700013
2. Beauchamp, T. L. (2016) Principlism in bioethics. In P. Serna & J. A. Seoane (Eds.), Bioethical decision making and argumentation (pp. 1-16). New York, NY: Springer.
3. Caldwell, S. (2018, February 1). Dutch doctors euthanize a 29-year old woman with depression. Catholic Herald.
4. Felder, B. M. (2013). “Euthanasia,” human experiments, and psychiatry in Nazi-occupied Lithuania, 1941-1944. Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 27(2), 242-275. https://doi.org/10.1093/hgs/dct025
5. Kim, S. Y., De Vries, R. G., & Peteet, J. R. (2016). Euthanasia and assisted suicide of patients with psychiatric disorders in the Netherlands 2011 to 2014. JAMA Psychiatry, 73(4), 362-368. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.2887
6. Naga, B. S. B., & Mrayyan, M. T. (2013). Legal and ethical issues of euthanasia: Argumentative essay. Middle East Journal of Nursing, 7(5), 31-39. https://doi.org/10.5742/MEJN.2013.75330
7. Nunes R., & Rego, G. (2016.) Euthanasia: A challenge to medical ethics. Journal of Clinical Research & Bioethics, 7(4), 1-5. https://doi.org/10.4172/2155-9627.1000282
8. Tomasini, F. (2014). Stoic defence of physician-assisted suicide. Acta Bioethica, 20(1), 99-108. Retrieved from https://scielo.conicyt.cl/pdf/abioeth/v20n1/art11.pdf