Euthanasia vs. The Death Penalty: Why We Only Kill the Unwilling

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As a diehard fan of controversy, I decided the best thing I could possibly do this week was not only breach one controversial topic, but address two of the most controversial topics available to the politically inclined. These are those topics people don’t like to touch at cocktail parties. Kind of along the lines of abortion and gay rights, the death penalty and euthanasia are taboo conversation pieces you are probably not going to bring up around newfound acquaintances.

Fear not, avoiders of social faux pas. These topics have now become open for discussion.

Regardless of your intuitive beliefs on the subject, it is important to look at why we believe assisted suicide is permissible or why we think it should remain out of reach. One of the major arguments against the use of euthanasia is the possibility for voluntary euthanasia to lead the way toward involuntary euthanasia in the future. This premise would give doctors a god-like power, placing them in positions to choose who lives and who dies. Others feel there is no way of really regulating the use of lethal injection while still others think its use violates the sanctity of life and the value of suffering. And while all of these oppositions are valid, the majority of them are purely opinion based rather than founded in science.

An important note to make is that I am referring to euthanasia as used for the benefit of terminally ill patients, patients who are in chronic pain and who will never be able to live fully satisfactory lives. I am also referring to euthanasia used in a specifically clinical setting, under the supervision of medical professionals, with preferably two or more doctors for each case. That being said, what is there to fear?

First of all, I recognize that the idea of abuse of a legal lethal injection is formidable. But what if very specific guidelines were put in place for all assisted suicide candidates to follow? If we mandated the presence of boards and committees in charge of assessing each case, acquired the opinions of two or more doctors, and outlined certain requirements for the patient such as age, context of illness, and the ability to articulate exactly why they have chosen this option, the possibility for abuse becomes limited. With that said, the only thing keeping opposers from being on board are their personal convictions about the idea of assisted suicide in a medical setting.

Is it founded in religion? Does” thou shalt not kill” apply to oneself as well? If so, the argument is invalid. There is a separation of church and state because different religions offer very different views on all topics, death and suicide included. It would be unjust to let any one religious doctrine guide the rules we all must follow.

And what if we were to take a look at the legality of death in the United States as it is?

> The first regulated use of lethal injection in the US was to create a more humane method for carrying out the death penalty.

> There are currently 32 states where the death penalty is legal.

> There have been 1,348 executions since 1976, the year the death penalty was reinstated in the US.

> There are currently 3,261 prisoners on death row.

> Since 1973 there have been 140 prisoners released from death row when evidence of their innocence was established.

> In 1994 the federal death penalty was expanded to include 50 different offenses.

And perhaps the most relevant fact for the comparison of euthanasia and the death penalty, “volunteers” for the death penalty are inmates on death row who waive their right to appeal their death sentence. This results in what some call “state-assisted suicide,” and since 1977 11% of all executions took place with “volunteers.”

Now for those of you paying attention, “state-assisted suicide” sounds an awful lot like “assisted suicide.” Which begs the question, why can the state authorize lethal injection for prisoners on death row—which is a condition less “fatal” than terminal illness, given the possibility for clemency—but not for individuals who suffer extreme pain caused by their terminal illnesses?

In the classic sense of “good versus evil,” it would make sense for some people to be in favor of the death penalty. The criminals on death row are consistently painted as godless, bloodthirsty creatures, as people who deserve to die for what they have done. This all makes sense from a strictly “pay for your sins” perspective, but it still does not explain why supporters of the death penalty can give an approving thumbs up for killing prisoners while simultaneously offering a turned-down nose at the prospect of assisted suicide.

From a practical perspective, who are we to tell someone whether or not they have the right to die? If we are guaranteed the right to life, liberty and property, why shouldn’t we be guaranteed a right to death? It is no one’s business what we choose to do with our lives, so why should it be anyone’s business how we choose to handle our deaths? Personally I’d like to see the laws for euthanasia written only by the terminally ill and the chronically agonized. Who the hell are a couple of congressional law makers to sit in comfortable chairs,  experiencing full use of all their appendages, living in relative comfort every day of their lives to decide how long someone with stage four bone cancer needs to suffer before they eventually do pass on? And even more fundamentally, since when did death become such a bad thing? Why is allowing someone peaceful release from their tortuous state such a crime against humanity? It is apparently completely permissible for us to kill someone based on 50 different kinds of charges, but for someone who is diagnosed as terminal anyways and is suffering from dawn to dusk and even after, it is somehow our moral duty to make sure this person lives to take their last agonizing breath?

We cannot use a majority of the arguments against euthanasia unless we use the same arguments against the death penalty’s utilization of lethal injection. If it is fully and rigidly regulated, if there are specific requirements which must be met, and if the patient makes the request themselves without the doctor ever bringing it up independently, what reason is there to perpetuate suffering?

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Undergraduate research assistant and blogger for the Moral Communities Project. **The opinions and views expressed are my own and do not reflect the official positions of The Moral Communities Project or its funders.

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5 thoughts on “Euthanasia vs. The Death Penalty: Why We Only Kill the Unwilling

  1. “Diehard fan of of controversy” Pun intended? Interesting read.

    If suicide was legalized, how would society make sure people aren’t making a rushed decision? or if they were in a state of mind where they can make such a decision? Would that not be our responsibility?

    If it’s not the state’s place to make decisions regarding our lives, is it the state’s place to make sure we are living a healthy life? (e.g. supplemental services for low income fams and healthcare).

  2. There would need to be a lot of requirements put in place to avoid hasty decision making but I think one way to avoid this would be through the utilization of one (or several) psychologists. If a patient was thoroughly assessed as someone who honestly wanted to make the decision for lethal injection, and all of the psychologists and doctors agreed the patient truly wanted it, then I don’t believe there would be an issue. Also, asking the patient at several different times and in several different circumstances (ie. before and after seeing their family, receiving pain meds, etc.) and seeing if their responses differed would be an indicator of the patient’s true wishes.

    As for the state’s place in our lives, all I can offer is my personal opinion. I personally want any and all forms of government to leave me alone as much as possible, but I do believe in the importance of support for those who need it, I just believe it should be offered as an option rather than mandated.

  3. Thank you so much for this…I was working on an assignment and was discussing the irony between the acceptance of the death penalty while being against euthanasia. I needed a source but thought, ‘how random, I’ll never find anything’. Then I found your blog! I feel like you said exactly what I was thinking and I was able to reference your site.

  4. A person sentenced, by a lawfully appointed person (i.e a Judge) to the death penalty should be led from the courtroom straight to the place of execution. In the US there’s a Catch 22. First you have to spend months, or years, in prison. That turns the sentence into a double penance and goes against the right to speedy justice and execution. No appeals possible.
    The convicted was lawfully dispatched and there’s no way back.

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