Assisted Death: A Study in Ethics and Law Hardcover – Aug 7 2011
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the target audience extends beyond professional philosophers, and the aim is not merely to understand the situation but to change it. This is altogether laudable, and some pulling of punches might help. And what might well be hoped for this very good book careful, modest, wellstructured throughout is that its importance is not long-lasting and that it helps bring about its own demise. Christopher Belshaw, The Philosophical Quarterly Lucid and powerful... Sumner's book provides a superb example of the relevance of philosophy to public policy. Thomas Nagel, London Review of Books
About the Author
L.W. Sumner is University Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. He is the author of four books: Abortion and Moral Theory (1981); The Moral Foundation of Rights (1987); Welfare, Ethics, and Happiness (1996); and The Hateful and the Obscene: Studies in the Limits of Free Expression (2004). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and recipient of the 2009 Molson Prize in Social Sciences and Humanities from the Canada Council for the Arts.
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A Study in Ethics and Law
(New York: Oxford Unitersity Press, 2011) 236 pages
(ISBN: 978-0-19-960798-3; hardcover)
(Library of Congress call number: K5178.S86 2011)
(Medical call number: WB33.1S955a 2011)
A careful philosophical exploration of end-of-life medical choices,
which are intended or forseen to shorten the process of dying:
1. 'euthansia' and 'physician-assisted suicide';
2. using pain-killers with the knowledge that vital functions will probably be suppressed;
3. terminal sedation--keeping the patient continuously unconscious until death;
4. terminal dehydration--giving up all food and water, however provided.
Specific chapters discuss these important themes:
(2) patient consent and/or refusal of medical treatments.
(3) using pain-relieving drugs with the purpose of reducing suffering
and/or the intention of bringing death;
(4) evaluating and responding to patient requests for death;
(5) deciding death for others.
Part II deals with the attempts to control end-of-life choices
using various laws and regulations.
Almost all laws dealing with life-ending decisions
focus just on two high-profile methods of choosing death:
(1) 'euthanasia'--the doctor gives a lethal injection;
(2) 'physician-assisted suicide'--the doctor prescribes a gentle poison.
But even in jurisdictions where both of these life-ending options
have been available for many years,
less than 2% of all deaths are achieved by these methods.
Many more deaths are achieved by other methods,
which have the same result--death--but have not been controversial:
(1) ending all curative treatment and life-support systems;
(2) increasing pain-killing drugs to relief suffering
with the knowledge that the process of dying will also be shortened;
(3) choosing terminal sedation
--keeping the patient continuously unconscious until natural death; &
(4) giving up all food and water
--which will result in death by dehydration within a few days.
Because these four additional methods of choosing death
have not been thoroly discussed or studied,
we do not have precise data about how often they occur.
Also, these additional methods of dying are often combined.
In fact, it would be possible to use all four at once.
Even in locations where the controversial methods are banned,
doctors are already recommending these methods of choosing death
when the patient faces the last few days in the hospital.
When we ourselves are on our death-beds,
we already do have these possible methods of dying.
This book supports the right-to-die
and proposes some common-sense methods of preventing abuses and mistakes.
It should be read by careful students of choices at the end of life.
James Leonard Park, advocate of the right-to-die with careful safeguards
and author of How to Die: Safeguards for Life-Ending Decisions
Sumner makes it clear that he is in favour of autonomy and is a pro-choice proponent, but he writes clearly and objectively in presenting the best arguments from opposing sides without being judgmental. Religious people as well as non-religious people who oppose assisted suicide will not be offended by the book, and may indeed find his arguments helpful in their own positions.
Part of his discussion on the legal landscape as he calls it involved detailed studies of landmark cases such as the case of Karen Quinlen and Nancy Curzon. However, he seemed to have omitted the latest and most controversial case of Terri Schiavo. For that the reader might want to refer to Jon Eisenberg's "Right vs Right to Die", and if one wishes to read the partisan views, there is a book written by Schiavo's parents, the Schindlers, called "A Life That Matters", and one by her husband, Michael Schiavo, "Terri - The Truth". The one other drawback is the absence of an index to the book. These are two further reasons in wishing Sumner a long and healthy life so that a second edition of this marvellous book can be made even better.
As Sumner says, "Euthanasia is easiest to justify when it is voluntary, hardest when it is not." The fundamental issue is not so much about "rights" but what one's views are as to whether human life is sacred. That calls for a clear understanding as to what that word means and if there is such a thing as the sanctity of life that prohibits the taking of a life under any circumstances. Unless we clarify that, rights and wrongs about the taking of a life can be argued without conclusion. One small step to approaching death, whether we are pro-choice or pro-life, is to remember Seneca's words: "Where death is, I am not; where I am, death is not."
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