A Humane Necessity
BY HARRY BENJAMIN
IT SEEMS inconceivable that in a happier world of the future no provision should be made for putting out of their misery persons suffering from an excessively painful and incurable disease. We shall have to find some legal way to accord to human beings the relief we accord to animals.
Euthanasia — or “mercy killing” — can be practiced by commission, which is illegal, or by omission, which is not. A doctor cannot he punished for intentionally neglecting to ad-minister some remedy or stimulant which might prolong life, although he may be ac-cused of incompetence and malpractice. I shall consider here only euthanasia by com-mission.
The present situation is utterly unfair to the individual physician who believes that the relief of suffering is one of his principal duties. Many medical practitioners undoubtedly resort to euthanasia, but since they do so secretly it is impossible to say how many. They feel compelled to commit a technical “murder” even though they must bear the whole responsibility. That is the unfair part. Situations like the recent one in New Hamp-shire must arise frequently, and why in that case the doctor reported his act is difficult to understand. (Why, too, did he inject air instead of merely giving an overdose of mor-phine?) Bigots and sticklers for legal technicalities will always try to prevent or punish humanitarian action by an individual physician. Since the decision rests with him alone, the doctor will rarely ask for the consent of either the patient or the relatives. The mercy killing is therefore done furtively, when it should be done candidly, serenely, and law-fully.
None of the various arguments against euthanasia have ever shaken my belief in its truly humane purpose. In the space at my disposal I can refer only to a few. One of the most frequently heard but also most superficial objections is that the Nazis practiced euthanasia. What loose thinking! The Nazis never asked the consent of patients or rela-tives. There was no mercy in their killings, only expediency.
The contention that a seemingly incurable condition might some day be cured by a new medical discovery hardly holds water. How can the hopeless cancer victim or the imbe-cile child of today benefit by a discovery of tomorrow? The laws regulating euthanasia must of course be flexible, and requirements based on present knowledge may be changed in the future.
Another objection to euthanasia stems from the possibility of fraud and abuse. But if the decision on “merciful release” is left to a government-appointed board of at least three persons — for instance, two medical men and one lawyer, who must be unanimous in its favor — this seems a weak argument. Surely legal experts can devise adequate safe-guards.
There will always remain the opposition of those who ding to sentimental superstitions about the sacredness of life. Such an emotional attitude cannot be changed by any rea-soning. But let me give an example of the “sacredness of life:”
A friend of mine, a professional man. in his late sixties, suffered from an inoperable can-cer of the liver which caused great accumulation of water in the abdominal cavity. At least once a week his abdomen had to be tapped to relieve the pressure. He suffered also from a chronic inflammation of the heart muscle, and the resulting circulatory weakness added to the complete hopelessness of the case. Bedridden in a hospital, he was kept alive by medical skill and expert nursing. Physicians and nurses did their duty. Sedatives were used, but in small doses they were often ineffective, and large doses were deemed contra-indicated.