Tuesday, September 09, 2003

James Rachels, medical ethicist, dead at 62.

He argued (in 1975, the year before Quinlan was decided) that "passive euthanasia" (i.e., removal of life support to allow for a patient's "natural death") was the moral equivalent of "active euthanasia" (i.e., a lethal injection of a drug with the intention of ending a patient's life). His article, originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is undoubtedly one of the most anthologized articles in the history of this field. The clarity of Rachel's thought and expression are a model for us all. What's missing from the obituaries and accolades from colleagues and friends, though, is this: his most famous essary pitches an idea whose time still has not come. Mainstream ethicists, as well as clinicians, judges, and legislators, do not agree that active and passive euthanasia are moral equivalents. Passive euthanasia, under at least some circumstances, is legal everywhere in the United States; active euthanasia is illegal everywhere in the U.S. But his legacy goes beyond one thought-provoking essay, and the impact of his essay goes beyond the realms of statutes and court judgments. For example, at the core of his argument is the insight that whether the conduct is called active or passive euthanasia, and whether the result is called a "natural death" or a "homicide," the removal of life-support from a patient is the cause of that person's death just as surely as a lethal injection would be. And health care professionals, family surrogates, and judges who hide behind the euphemistic notion that "they didn't cause the death, the underlying disease process caused the death," are kidding themselves. I am in favor of removing life-support from competent patients who refuse it and from incompetent patients who either made their wishes sufficiently known or clearly are not benefiting from the treatment. And I am against active euthanasia. But we owe it to the patient, as well as to future patients and to our own ethical understanding of our actions, to have the intestinal fortitude to call a killing a killing -- one justified, the other not. And that was part of James Rachels' legacy, too.
posted by tommayo, 6:47 AM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter