Most of us do not think about euthanasia until it is too late – until we ourselves or someone that we love is faced with death. Only then do we come up against the legal and moral questions surrounding the ending of a life, and then we are likely to find that our options are far fewer than we might have thought that they would be. However, many ethicists have either directly addressed the issue of euthanasia or written generally about the arena of moral and ethical conduct under which euthanasia must be considered.
The process of choosing to die even as one is faced with death is a complex one – psychologically, legally, ethically, and morally. The topic is made more ethically complicated because a range of different situations are actually concatenated under the term of euthanasia, ranging from passive euthanasia (such as not performing invasive surgery on an individual who is dying of cancer and who has asked that the surgery not be performed) to active euthanasia, as when a doctor gives a dying person enough painkillers so that the person can commit “assisted suicide” to what is sometimes called mercy killing, as when a nurse injects a drug that suppresses breathing in a patient and hastens that person’s death. Most people – and most ethicists – believe that a moral distinction must be made between, on the one hand, refusing to perform invasive medical procedures on an elderly, dying person who is in pain and has asked for no heroic measures to be taken and taking out a gun and shooting a person who is young, healthy and pleading to be allowed to live.
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