One of the most debated topics in the world today, 'mercy killing' refers to the act of killing a person with the intention of relieving him of pain and suffering. The practice has been under the scanner for quite some time now, with its pros and cons dividing the world into two groups. Those in support of mercy killing argue that it is anytime better to end the person's life when there is no chance of survival. Its critics though, refuse to budge from their stand and continue to argue that humans don't have the right to decide whether the person should live or die. In order to take a stand, one has to be well-versed with the basic facts about this practice.
What is Mercy Killing?
Mercy killing, also known as 'euthanasia' or 'physically assisted suicide', is the practice of ending the life of a person who is in a vegetative state, or is suffering from terminal illness, in order to relieve him of the pain and suffering associated with his condition. The term 'euthanasia', which is more often used in medical context, is derived from the Greek words eu and thanatos, meaning gentle and easy death. (The usage of the term 'euthanasia' is a subject of debate in itself, with some countries using it exclusively for 'active euthanasia'.) Mercy killing tops the list of contemporary bioethical issues as one of the most controversial concepts, which has even left the medical fraternity divided.
Even though mercy killing amounts to criminal homicide in most of the countries, there do exist a few countries, like the Netherlands and Switzerland, which have lawful provisions for it. At the same time, there also exist several countries where the fate of this concept hangs in balance. In the United States for instance, three states―Washington, Oregon, and Montana, have legal provisions for assisted suicide, while other states consider it a felony. Again, which form of mercy killing the patient or his family resorts has an important role to play when it comes to legalities.
Forms of Mercy Killing
On the basis of whether the person's consent is available or not, mercy killing is categorized into three forms or types: voluntary, non-voluntary, and involuntary. If it is conducted with the consent of the patient who wants to end his life, it amounts to voluntary mercy killing. In this case, the patient himself requests that he should be put to death.
In cases wherein the patient's consent is not available as he/she is in vegetative state, it is referred to as non-voluntary euthanasia. There do exist medical cases wherein damage to brain leaves the person in a condition wherein he can feel or think, but cannot speak or move. In order to put an end to his misery, his family member may request that he be put to death.
There also exist cases wherein the patient is put to death against his will in what is referred to as involuntary euthanasia. Appeals for non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia are also common in cases wherein the cost of keeping the patient alive with no signs of improvement are very high.
Euthanasia Types: Procedure Involved
On the basis of the procedure involved, euthanasia or mercy killing is grouped into two categories: passive and active. In case of passive euthanasia, treatment necessary for continuance of life is discontinued, which, in turn, results in the person's death. In case of active euthanasia, on the other hand, a lethal substance is used to put the person to death. The use of lethal means to assist death has made active euthanasia one of the most controversial subjects in the field of medicine. As we mentioned earlier, the term euthanasia is only restricted to active euthanasia in some jurisdictions. This, in turn, has resulted in some confusion on whether euthanasia and mercy killing are the same.
Mercy Killing in the United States
As in case of various other nations, the practice has also triggered a debate in the United States, wherein it happens to be a major political issue. While active euthanasia is considered illegal in every single state of America, physician-assisted suicide is considered legal in three states, Washington, Oregon, and Montana. Of the numerous stipulations that are being put forth by the law, the most important one is the fact that the patient has to be mentally stable when opting for physician-assisted suicide. Similarly, he/she can only be granted the permission to do so if he/she is suffering from terminal illness and has no more than six months to live, which has to be confirmed by two doctors. Even though it is illegal, the US law does give patients the right to refuse medication, which eventually amounts to passive euthanasia.
The concept has drawn a great deal of criticism from various quarters, especially the religious groups and NGOs, which are lobbying for a ban on the same. Even though both groups oppose this concept, the reasons they cite are different. While religious groups continue to argue that humans do not have the right to kill fellow humans, NGOs oppose it for its potential abuse. Though the potential abuse argument does sound convincing, there are some questions which are still left unanswered. Isn't it the ignorance about this practice that has made it so controversial? Isn't the torture of seeing your loved one in immense pain a good enough reason to opt for non-voluntary mercy killing? Shouldn't we give the patient the option to choose between living in suffering or dying a peaceful death?