In a 1988 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, an article titled “It’s Over Debbie” describes how an anonymous doctor administers a fatal dose of morphine to a woman dying of ovarian cancer (Anonymous, 1988). In a 1989 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, ten doctors associated with the nation’s leading hospitals and medical schools declare their belief that “it is not immoral for a physician to assist in the rational suicide of a terminally ill person” (Wanzer, et. al., 1989).
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In 1991, the New England Journal of Medicine published a detailed account written by Dr. Timothy Quill which discussed his decision to help a patient suffering from leukemia commit suicide (Quill, 1991). In 1990, Dr. Jack Kervorkian uses his suicide machine to help a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, one Janet Adkins, end her life in the back of a Volkswagen bus (Risen, 1990). Janet was the first of twenty patients who have been aided by Kervorkian in the past three years. He remains committed to his practice. In 1991 the Hemlock Society publishes a how-to manual on committing suicide. Entitled Final Exit, it zooms to the top of the national best seller lists and stays there for several weeks (Altman, 1991). Each of these events has served to provoke ever widening media coverage of the issues surrounding euthanasia and physician assisted suicide, and a national debate has arisen around these practices. This debate is not merely limited to attorneys and physicians. Suddenly, these issues and this debate are now a part of life in mainstream America, and many Americans face dilemmas that did not exist in simpler times; dilemmas that many would rather not have to face.
It is this sudden change in the way Americans are dealing with death, the nature and scope of the debate about dying, which prompts this analysis of the issues surrounding euthanasia. This debate is largely a debate about what is ethical. Questions the debate attempts to answer include: Is it right to commit suicide? Is it ethical for someone else to help? Is it right to put others to death at their own request or at the request of family members? These questions are important because they help to define our society and our culture. The way people deal with and respond to issues of life, ritual, and death serves to shape the nature of our society. This is why society must attempt to decide what is right; what is ethical conduct for the various actors in our communities when we face death. There are several reasons why this debate has surfaced in the 1980’s.
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