Active and passive euthanasia

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Activeand passive euthanasia


Activeand passive euthanasia

Inhis article, James Rachels makes a compelling case as to why moralarguments for passive euthanasia should not be different from that ofthe active option. His discussion is focused on stressing three mainpoints. Firstly, he argues that it is more human to engage in activeeuthanasia than it is to adopt a passive policy. Secondly, Rachelsbelieves that the doctrinal principles that are applied in decidingmatters of life and death are irrelevant to the end goal of thepractitioners. He also points out that the doctrinal distinctionbetween letting someone die and killing is of no importance (Rachels,2006). Lastly, Rachels is of the opinion that all argument for theeuthanasia doctrine are invalid and this makes the statement by theAmerican medical association endorsing the policy unsound.

Inthe article, he starts by evaluating the difference between activeand passive euthanasia. From a professional perspective, he notesthat is permissible to withhold treatment in a bid to let a persondie but unacceptable to take direct action with the aim of killing asper the doctrine. However, a doctor who withholds treatment andallows a patient to painfully wither away over an unknown period isless human than one who takes direct action to ensure instant endingof the pain and suffering of a dying individual. Thus, passiveeuthanasia prolongs the suffering of the subject, and this is incontrary to the initial intention (Rachels, 2006). Here, he notesthat practitioners who endorse the doctrine do so under theassumption that letting a person die is morally acceptable incomparison to killing.

Secondly,Rachels notes that the doctrine used to invoke life or deathdecisions are irrelevant. Euthanasia, whether passive or active, hasthe ultimate goal of ending the suffering of a patient. Thus, giventhat they are motivated by a similar purpose, there should not be adifference in the way practitioners are treated when applying bothpolicies. However, this moral dilemma is tilted in favour of activeeuthanasia by legislations that outlaws killing. Thus, doctors aremore concerned with acting within the parameters of the law at theexpense of the person they purport to be helping (Rachels, 2006).Additionally, the statement by the American medical associationforbids mercy killing by stating that it is not the role of anyperson to take the life of another. However, Rachels’s argument hasshown that there is no moral basis to differentiate between lettingsomeone die or mercy killing making the doctrinal policy void.

Havingstressed on the reasons why he is of the opinion that moral argumentfor active and passive euthanasia should not be different, he alsoevaluates the opposition to his line of thinking. Here, Rachels notesthat the greatest opposition to active euthanasia is on the moralview about death. The society views death as an evil occurrence andthus a doctor being the cause makes it an unacceptable action(Rachels, 2006). However, he notes that mercy killing is not an evilthing unless it is motivated by worldly desires. Therefore, if thesociety were to stop viewing death as an evil occurrence and insteadanalyses every case based on its merits.

Iam inclined to agree with the argument presented by Rachels on activeeuthanasia. However, those opposed to his view would use thefollowing criticism to undermine his argument. Firstly, he arguesthat mercy killing is a preferred option when the victim has no hopeof recuperating, and hence it become prudent to end his life.However, the moral authority to determine when to end a life can becalled into question. Rachels argues that family members can decidewhen they do not want their relatives to suffer anymore. A critic maywant to examine how one will be able to determine the motivationbehind such a decision, whether it is based on mercy towards thevictim or motivated by benefits to the family members. The inabilityof the argument to provide a direct answer in this regard may be usedto undermine the whole case.

Secondly,the legality of committing murder can also be a source of criticismfor Rachels’s argument. To ensure doctors and other practitionersdo not extend their mandate by playing God with the lives ofpatients, professionals are required to do everything within theirabilities to save the life of a victim. Thus, a person critiquing theargument would enquire as to how the doctors will be indemnified fromlegal action especially when one can prove that the killing wasmotivated by human needs. A person against the argument may point outthat since there are no criteria to be used to determine what amountsto excessive pain for a patient, engaging in active euthanasia mayexpose the profession to the possibility of legal liabilities.

Thoughthe issues raised above point out to visible weaknesses of theargument presented by the article, they are not enough to disregardits merits. In both cases, it is important to note that the argumentis aiming at expanding the practice of euthanasia, and not callingfor introduction of mercy killing. Rachels argues that active andpassive euthanasia are driven by the need to end the pain of apatient and thus the moral argument used for both policies should notbe different (Rachels, 2006). Additionally, there are existingmechanisms that prevent excesses raised in the criticism above. Theirapplication can be expanded to also cover professionals that wouldwant to engage in active euthanasia.

Thecase presented by Rachels can also be supported by Vaughn’s articleon Baby Euthanasia. Here, the author makes a case as to why assistingan infant to die should be permissible especially when the child isin excruciating pain (Vaughn, 2012). Similar to Rachels view, Vaughnargues that it is important for medical practitioner to be given thechance to take away the suffering of patient where there is nomedical chance of recovery. Additional, he also argues thatrecognising mercy killing within the law will allow doctors toprevent suffering for victims. This article reinforces Rachels viewon active euthanasia and also shows that the criticism, thoughmerited, should not overshadow possible benefits.

Theabove point noted, Rachels is aware of weaknesses in his argument andthus presents the article in a format similar to the one presented byCallahan. In both articles, the authors are in agreement that activeeuthanasia is an issue which raises moral issues regarding itsapplication. However, they present the case for the policy and go astep ahead to explain how the shortcoming resulting from theirarguments can be addressed (Callahan,1988).This moves to show that Rachels’s article has a lot of merits andit is upon policy makers in the sector to come up with a mechanismthat allows the society to benefit from active euthanasia.


Callahan,D. (1988). Vital distinctions, mortal questions. Commonweal,115(13),397.

Rachels,J. (2006). . Bioethics: An Anthology, 2,288.

Vaughn,L. (2012). Bioethics: Principles, Issues, and Cases. 2nd Ed. OxfordUniversity Press

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