By Sarini Saksena
Advancements in medicine and technology in the early twentieth century brought into question the appropriateness of life-sustaining treatments for the terminally and incurably ill patients experiencing severe pain and suffering. The idea of Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS) and Euthanasia created lots of discussion in the late 1930's. Supporters of PAS believed that it is morally wrong to keep someone who is incurably ill, alive against their own will. Meanwhile, opponents of Euthanasia argued that taking a person's life or assisting in his or her suicide is an offence against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity itself. Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS) and Euthanasia became highly controversial ethical issues in the United States, however, key events such as different interpretations of the 14th Amendment, an individual's right to life, right of privacy and the socio-political impact of possible legalization brought these issues into legal and political prominence during the 1960's to 1980's.
One of the major turning points in the perception of Physician-Assisted suicide happened in the late 1950's when the Euthanasia Society of America (ESA) took a legal approach in arguing for PAS after noticing that moral and religious arguments were failing. Before the 1950's, Euthanasia was discussed and argued on moral and religious grounds only. It was interesting that within Christianity there was a huge contrast in the opinions and views of PAS. While Catholics strictly opposed this idea, Unitarians supported it. One of the earliest supporters of PAS was Reverend Charles Potter of New York. Reverend Potter believed that "incurably diseased individuals possess the divine right to gently have their life terminated thus ending their unnecessary suffering"1. In 1938, Rev. Potter founded the Euthanasia Society of America (ESA). The ESA's primary goal was to share the purpose and need of PAS, and to promote its general acceptance and implementation. However, During World War II, the word "euthanasia" was disapproved of since the American's associated it with the 'mercy deaths' happening in Germany. The Nazis would kill large populations of Jewish men, women, elderly and disabled people under the pretext of "their life being unworthy of life"2. This incident created disapproval of Euthanasia across America. Religious beliefs also influenced the negative view of Euthanasia. Another reason that Euthanasia and Physician- Assisted suicide was due to Catholic religious beliefs.
The Declaration On Euthanasia affirmed the Catholic position that nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. The Declaration went on to state that no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action. For it is a question of the violation of the divine law, an offence against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity.2
The ESA tried to emphasized the fact that PAS is in fact is a painless "termination of life for the purpose of avoiding unnecessary suffering for those who are terminally or incurably ill, under adequate safeguards"1 but were unable to convince the public. This is considered a turning point, because the ESA realized that making arguments using moral and religious justifications would always be countered by equally strong opposing moral and religious arguments. The organization would never have been able to convince the public