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What Is Mercy Killing?

Mercy killing, or euthanasia is a controversial act that aims to end the suffering of an ill individual.
Choosing to switch off a mechanical ventilation machine can be a form of mercy killing.
Mercy killing, also known as euthanasia, is legal in Luxembourg.
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  • Originally Written By: Lori Smith
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2014
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Mercy killing, also known as voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, is essentially an act by one person that is designed to end the life of another who is suffering from extreme pain or incurable illness. It is considered a criminal homicide in most but not all places, though proponents argue that it should be treated differently than malicious murder because, in general, it is done out of love or compassion for the person killed. People who are suffering from prolonged illness often wish to die rather than simply waiting for nature to take its course, though they may not be able to effectively end their lives themselves. Friends and family members of people who are on life support machines or who are only living with the support of ventilation or other medical interventions sometimes also choose to shut these devices off, essentially causing the person attached to die. The practice is highly controversial and polarizing, even in places where it is permitted by law.

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Why it Happens

Assisted suicide is usually only referred to as a “mercy killing” if there is some compelling reason why helping someone die could be seen as merciful, and in most cases this comes down to physical suffering. People who live each day in extraordinary pain often wish for death as a way to end their misery, particularly if they know that their condition is terminal and that death is imminent. Sometimes they wish to control the conditions of their death, such as having friends and family nearby, and they often also want to retain at least a bit of lucidity such that they know what’s going on and are able to say their final goodbyes.

How it Happens

There are a couple of different ways people help others die, but lethal drug overdoses are some of the most common. In these cases doctors prescribe drugs in strengths and combinations that are designed to quickly and peacefully end someone’s life. People who are able can self-administer these drugs, usually by swallowing them, or they may have them injected intravenously, too.

Ending medically necessary life support is common as well. People who depend on ventilators or life support machines can request that these machines be switched off, which usually leads to relatively quick death. Family members and loved ones of patients in such situations sometimes choose to remove life support mechanisms on their own, too, often if the patient is unconscious or non-responsive and not expected to ever recover.

Questions of Legality

Assisted suicide is illegal in many places, including most states in the US. Other countries, such as Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, have established provisions for lawful euthanasia, but the practice is typically tightly regulated and can only happen under certain terms and conditions.

In areas where physician-assisted suicide is allowed, it almost always must be carried out by and under the supervision of a licensed medical doctor. In other words, it is generally illegal for anyone other than a doctor to actually administer the life-ending treatments, though others can often be present. Laws in some places specify that only people with certain illnesses or pain conditions are eligible, too.

It is a crime in almost every jurisdiction for non-physicians to end the life of another, even if it is what the person wants. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen, though. If convicted, the person who illegally performs the mercy killing may be sent to prison.

Prison may also be a reality for physicians who help terminally ill patients end their own lives in areas where the practice is outlawed. One of the most well-known physician-assisted suicide activists was the American pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian. He was reported to have illegally assisted in the death of more than 100 patients in the United States, and was convicted of multiple charges of second-degree murder in the late 1990s and sent to prison. He was released in 2007 after agreeing to not provide advice on committing suicide to anyone else, after which he appeared at various universities and on TV talk shows to promote his belief and theories about a patient's right to die.

Controversy

Mercy killing and physician-assisted suicide is a controversial topic in society and among medical professionals in general, and much of this debate exists apart from its strict legality. Some doctors feel that the practice goes against the profession's do no harm doctrine, while others argue that prolonging the life of someone who wishes to die and who is certain to die soon in the future is a cruel infringement on human rights. A number of religious leaders also oppose the practice on moral and ethical grounds.

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Discuss this Article

anon348959
Post 12

I think it's not right for someone to take the life of another. My friends have said God knows why everything happens.

chocybiskit1
Post 11

I am writing to let people know my views on euthanasia. I personally think it should be through the person's own choice. I would think that they have thought about it over and over and they are not just doing it just to kill.

For example, I have a friend who is very close to me and my family. Three of her brothers were born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). If you don't know about it, I would suggest to anyone do some research it. I think, for example, if you were to have something like that or a terminal illness and it is the patient's choice I don't personally see there being a problem with it. I think for reasons like this it should be legalized in most countries. This is only my personal opinion.

anon301058
Post 8

Mercy killing, is really a hard topic to debate on. From my point of view, as a believer in Christ I will say no to it. God has a reason for everything in our lives. One example in the bible is about Job. Even when he was at the point of death he did not take his life, because of his belief in God.

I know is hard to see loved ones suffer, but ending their life may not be what God had in mind for them. I believe we should let everything take it place naturally. The bible says we should not kill, so I will always hold on to that.

anon284130
Post 5

It's my life and if I please, I will do anything to put a family member out of their misery. It's no one's business. The problem with this society is you go to jail for nothing because it's jail profiteering. It's all about money.

turquoise
Post 4

I recently read an article about a case in India where the government dismissed a plea for mercy killing of a patient in a vegetative state. The article also talked about the difference between active and passive euthanasia. Active euthanasia is said to be a deliberate action by doctors that results in the death of a patient. Passive euthanasia is when medical staff withhold treatment that results in the patient's death.

I think there are also debates about whether one of these is more moral than the other. To me, it sounds like the same thing. Whether the doctors do something or not, the patient dies regardless.

I think what is more important for patients in a vegetative state, is that the decision to let the patient live or die be given by people who have the right to decide.

In the Indian example, the plea for euthanasia was made by a friend of the patient who rarely visited her. She is clearly not the right person to decide the fate of the patient. The nurses and doctors at the hospital, on the other hand, had been taking care of the patient for many years. So when they argued that the patient be allowed to live, the government listened to them and passed a decision according to that.

I think this is a great example. For a patient who cannot communicate their wishes, you have to ask people who really care for them, know them and what they would want in that situation. Otherwise, mercy killing can become murder.

ysmina
Post 3

I think that state and federal governments need to be very careful with the mercy killing debate because it is a very sensitive subject.

I personally feel that an individual who is dependent on machines and has a very low quality of life and intense pain due to an illness should be given the freedom to choose what they do with their life. To prevent them from doing so would be an infringement on their liberties in my view.

I am concerned about mercy killing assisted by medical professionals however. The main reason is that I think that if mercy killing became widely accepted and legal in more states, hospitals may promote the practice to contain financial costs. The medical attention required for some patients can be very costly and hospitals may start looking at this as a cost benefit situation. As horrible as that sounds, I am afraid of it happening.

burcinc
Post 2

From a religious point of view, I believe that mercy killing is against one of the core beliefs of most religions- taking the life of another or yourself. Whether a patient desires to die or not, I don't think that he should be allowed to. I realize that such patients are suffering from very serious and incurable illness and experience a lot of pain. I absolutely have empathy towards what they are experiencing, but I also cannot help but think that this is a test for them by God, a very difficult and perhaps almost unbearable test, but still a test nonetheless.

So for me, a mercy killing is no different than suicide or murder. But I would like to hear more about proponents of mercy killing and how they justify it in their minds. So please share them.

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