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The dictionary defines euthanasia as an ”act or method of causing death painlessly so as to end suffering: advocated by some as a way to deal with victims of incurable diseases.” This is something of an over-simplification, however. The practice of euthanasia has long been a contentious issue and a matter of disputatious debate. Some have termed euthanasia ”mercy killing” (Vernon 1970: 310), but others have reported that some critics have labeled it as murder.
While euthanasia has generally taken place within a medical context, historically, euthanasia, as a humanitarian act, has also occurred within other contexts, such as war. There are historical accounts (from all wars) of soldiers encountering badly wounded fellow soldiers or wounded enemy soldiers. If their wounds were severe and it appeared they would not survive and they could not be transported to a medical facility, the soldiers sometimes killed the wounded individual out of compassion, administering the ”coup de grace” -in effect, putting the wounded man out of his misery (Leming & Dickinson 2002: 283). Euthanasia most frequently, however, has occurred within a medical context, and this term has come to be associated with terminal illness and the medical setting. The discomfort of terminal illness is not the only motivating factor in euthanasia.
There are two distinctly different modes of operationalizing euthanasia: positive euthanasia and negative euthanasia (Charmaz 1980: 112). Positive euthanasia refers to the practice of deliberately ending the life of a patient through active means (e.g., giving the patient an overdose of sedatives, knowing that this will kill the individual). This practice is sometimes euphemistically termed ”snowing.” Negative euthanasia describes the practice of discontinuing interventive treatment, or withholding some life-sustaining ”drugs, medical devices, or procedures” (DeSpelder & Srickland 1999: 200). Charmaz (1980: 113) describes positive euthanasia as an act of commission and negative euthanasia as an act of omission. DeSpelder and Srickland (1999: 200) indicate that ”this distinction is sometimes characterized as the difference between ‘killing’ and ‘letting die.”’
Euthanasia, whether active or passive, voluntary or involuntary, or nonvoluntary, is socially (and legally) controversial. Assertive and persuasive arguments concerning euthanasia have been advanced by both proponents and opponents. According to Charmaz (1980: 112) there are ”three interrelated ethical questions constituent to the controversy.” First, should individuals have the right to elect and control death? Second, at what point might an individual legitimately exert these rights? Third, whose interests are going to be given priority, those of the individual or those of the society?
- Charmaz, (1980) The Social Realities of Death. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.
- Vernon, G. M. (1970) Sociology ofDeath: An Analysis ofDeath-Related Behavior. Ronald Press, New York.
- DeSpelder, L. A. & Strickland, A. L. (1999) The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying, 5th edn. Mayfield, Mountain View, CA.
- Leming, M. R. & Dickinson, G. E. (2002) Understanding Dying, Death & Bereavement, 5th edn. Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.
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