What We Owe to Terminally III Patients: The Option of Physician-Assisted Suicide

Asian Bioethics Review 8 (3):224-243 (2016)

Abstract

This paper examines whether physician-assisted suicide is morally permissible, and whether it should be legalised in the sense that those seeking or performing such procedure will be immune from prosecution. The issues of moral and legal permissibility1 are closely connected. One way to argue for the permissibility of PAS is grounded in the argument that a patient has the right to refuse life-saving equipment, or to have it withdrawn,2 and then to further argue that there is no relevant distinction between refusal/withdrawal and PAS, if the patient consents. This is essentially the argument raised in “The Philosophers’ Brief ”, filed by six distinguished philosophers. However, this argument has been soundly criticised. Frances Kamm points out that the general claim on which Dworkin et al. rely—that there is no moral difference per se between killing and letting die—is false. This is because a patient has the right to refuse treatment even when this is against his interest because the alternative would be forced treatment, but it is not true to say that a patient has the right to PAS even when it is against his interest. Also at issue is the Doctrine of Double Effect, according to which there is a moral distinction between an action that is intended to cause death and one that is merely foreseen to cause death. [End Page 224] In section I of this paper, I shall argue against DDE, which purports to disallow PAS but not refusal/withdrawal. I shall argue that since it is permissible for a physician to prescribe morphine to a patient suffering excruciating pain, it is also permissible for her to prescribe such a drug to a patient suffering pain, with the intention that he be killed and hence relieved of the suffering. The grounds on which I rely is the thesis that intention is irrelevant to permissibility, as proposed by Judith Thomson and T.M. Scanlon. In section II, I shall discuss David Velleman’s argument that termination of life is morally impermissible. I proceed to examine in section III the theoretical version of the Slippery Slope Argument. In section IV, I shall consider the practical version of the Slippery Slope Argument. In section V, I shall discuss other consequentialist objections to the legalisation of PAS. In the final section, I shall consider the view that even if PAS is morally permissible, it does not follow that it should be legalised. The argument I consider is the consequentialist one that legalising PAS may have a very different significance—when we consider the total consequences—than if there is only a single act of PAS, considered in isolation. While I agree that consequences are generally very important, I shall argue that we should approach the issue from a contractualist rather than a utilitarian perspective.3.

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Hon-Lam Li
Chinese University of Hong Kong

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Citations of this work

Contractualism and the Death Penalty.Hon-Lam Li - 2017 - Criminal Justice Ethics 36 (2):152-182.

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