Euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide remains a topic of conversation, particularly among families of those who suffer from dreaded, life-ending diseases, especially those that take a long time to conclude such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, MD and terminal, inoperable cancer.
Some of my clients have voiced frustration that the law allows one to put down a pet in grave distress, but a human must suffer until the end. If you’ve ever witnessed a loved one die a slow, painful, death then you probably understand the desire to more freely allow euthanasia.
To that end, Switzerland, Holland and Belgium, as well as a growing number of U.S. states, including California, Colorado and most recently Maine, whose governor recently signed the Death With Dignity Act, have legalized euthanasia.
New medical guidance in Canada, where the practice has been legal for three years for terminally ill patients, hints at the troublesome ways that assisted suicide might be expanded in the coming years. I say “troublesome” because of the influence of the need for organ donations taken from individuals who choose to meet their end in this manner.
About 30 euthanasia patients in Canada have donated their organs after death since 2016. The Canadian Medical Association issued guidelines for how the process should work, clarifying that organ removal should not begin until the patient is medically deceased and the heart stops beating.
But some experts quarrel with this restriction.
In a 2018 New England Journal of Medicine article, two Canadian medical researchers and a Harvard bioethicist argued waiting until death occurs reduces the quality of donated organs. The authors suggest killing the patient by removing his organs. After all, the best organs come from live people, like those who donate a kidney.
Even a gap of a few minutes that it takes following death to remove the organ makes a difference in its quality. The New England Journal of Medicine authors admit to the ghoulishness of their proposal but note “many may want the option of donating as many organs as possible in the best condition possible.”
By linking assisted suicide and organ harvesting, those in the medical community ratify the premise that euthanasia can help create a more efficient organ supply chain. An obvious criticism of Canada’s guidance that organs may be harvested only from deceased individuals is that it focuses on the supply of organs while ignoring the demand.
One need only look to China to see where this might lead. There, organs are harvested from executed political prisoners. Executions are timed to maximize the organ-harvesting potential. After the sentence is handed down, doctors examine the condemned man to evaluate him as a possible organ donor. If he looks like a good candidate, the date of his execution is put on hold until, say, someone needs a heart transplant.
While you might say that China is the exception, it’s not too hard to imagine the temptation for other countries to link the time of death with the demand for organs. You may recall these conversations over the implementation of Obamacare, where critics suggested that “death squads” might take the need for organ donation into consideration when determining resources allocated to a terminally ill patient.
One lesson from Holland’s experience with euthanasia is that doctors and nurses may powerfully influence a person’s decision to end his life. The most vulnerable patients are those who are depressed and dependent upon another’s care. Some patients were reportedly influenced by their caregiver’s cues of being physically, mentally and financially worn out.
In many circumstances, slippery-slope scenarios and arguments often seem foolish or unlikely. Here, however, the moral problems warrant serious philosophical discussion. There are two very real sides to the euthanasia coin, and hopefully we arrive at conclusions considering the consequences of each.
© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.