Voluntary Euthanasia and the Common Law

By Margaret Otlowski | Go to book overview

Introduction

While the problem of euthanasia is an ancient one,1 it has, in recent years, acquired a new relevance and urgency and has increasingly been the subject of public debate, government inquiries, and legislative reform activity. The current prominence of the euthanasia issue can be attributed to a number of interrelated factors. One of the most significant has been the institutionalization of the process of dying. Developments in medical technology have significantly increased the capacity to sustain life beyond any possible hope of recovery. Patients, who would in the past have died from natural causes can now be sustained almost indefinitely as a result of the intervention of artificial life-support equipment or other medical or surgical procedures. Modern medical technology clearly brings many benefits, but it has also created new legal and ethical problems in determining when to use medical interventions to attempt to save or prolong a patient's life, and when a patient should be permitted to die. One negative consequence of the tremendous advances in sustaining human life is that, in some instances, the dying process is unnecessarily prolonged. In fact, for many people, it is not death that they fear, but the possibility of dying in a painful and undignified manner. Thus, concern about the quality of life for the dying has prompted renewed interest in euthanasia.

Another factor which has contributed to the prominence of the euthanasia issue has been the growing proportion of elderly people in western society, as a result of the general improvement in nutrition and health. Although the issue of euthanasia is not limited to the elderly, clearly those who are approaching the end of life are more likely to be concerned about the manner of their dying and to contemplate euthanasia. There has also been growing community awareness about patients' rights in the health care context, and voluntary euthanasia is regarded by many as providing the ultimate control over dying.

The emergence of the AIDS epidemic has also played a role in drawing attention to the issue. With many of its victims being young and assertive, well informed of the unpleasant death they will face, the demand for control

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1
According to a number of commentators, euthanasia was widely endorsed in the ancient world in cases of incurable disease by well-known figures such as Plato and the Stoic, Seneca. For an historical overview, see, for example, Wilson J., Death by Decision: The Medical Moral and Legal Dilemmas of Euthanasia ( Philadelphia, 1975) 17-45; Fye B., "Active Euthanasia: An Historical Survey of its Conceptual Origins and Introduction into Medical Thought" ( 1978) 52 Bull. of the History of Med.492; Gruman G., An Historical Introduction to Ideas About Voluntary Euthanasia ( 1973) 4 Omega87.

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Voluntary Euthanasia and the Common Law
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface v
  • Acknowledgements xiv
  • Contents xv
  • Table of Cases xxi
  • Introduction 01
  • 1 - Euthanasia Under the Criminal Law 12
  • 2 - Suicide and Assisted Suicide 56
  • 3 - The Position in Practice: Doctors' Practices and the Law Applied 127
  • 4 - The Euthanasia Debate 187
  • 5 - The Changing Climate for Reform 257
  • 6 - Moves Towards Reform 333
  • 7 - The Netherlands 391
  • 8 - Options for Reform 456
  • Conclusion 494
  • Appendix 503
  • Select Bibliography 520
  • Index 553
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