Ethical Issues Concerning Life & Death: Terms & Definitions

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  • 0:00 Life and Death
  • 0:55 Inducing Death
  • 3:30 Prolonging Life
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, explore some of the ethical issues in the medical world concerning the inducement of death and the prolonging of life. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Life and Death

When we think about morals, a lot of times we're talking about the best ways to live long, happy lives. But, that's not always the case. Sometimes we're talking about death. When is it best to keep someone alive, and when is it best to let them die? That's a pretty heavy question, and while it may not be the most cheerful ethical debate, it is important, especially in the world of healthcare.

Medical professionals have a unique set of moral duties to their patients, generally wrapped up in the idea of do no harm. So, can it actually be harmful to keep someone alive? That's the debate the medical world is facing today. It may not be the most upbeat topic, but there's no point in avoiding it. Ethics aren't always just about long and happy lives.

Inducing Death

Can death be a more ethical choice than life? That's the question many medical professionals are asking, specifically in terms of terminally-ill patients. Currently, modern medicine treats terminal illness, or sicknesses that cannot be cured and will result in death, in terms of making the patient as comfortable as possible for the remainder of their lives. But, sometimes this means keeping a patient constantly sedated with drugs. Other times, there simply is no way to avoid the pain that comes with a deteriorating condition. So, in these scenarios, where there is no chance of a recovery, some people are starting to argue that it is more humane, more ethical, to end a patient's life before suffering gets worse.

The term for this is euthanasia, which just means intentionally ending a life to relieve pain or suffering. Euthanasia is distinctly different than murder in that it is specifically focused on preventing suffering.

Euthanasia is a complex debate, and it can be broken into various ideas. Although most nations do not legally allow any form of euthanasia for human patients, the form that is gaining the most support is doctor-assisted suicide, in which a medical professional oversees the end of life to ensure that it is as painless and quick as possible.

The ideas of medical supervision and the voluntary consent of the patient are the two most important components of presenting this as ethical. That makes it different from forms of euthanasia in which the patient does not expressly ask for a termination of life. For example, the term mercy killing is often applied to euthanasia made without the knowledge of the patient or by someone outside of the medical profession. Generally, this is just someone who feels pity for the victim. These are still largely considered unethical, even amongst those who support doctor-assisted suicide.

However, there is even another form of mercy killing, which is simply letting someone die. There are those who believe that if someone is in immense pain, and their lives will not be great even after recovery, it may be more merciful to just let them die. Some people may support this on a personal level, but the medical profession does not. In almost all cases, the medical ethical duty is to provide care and prevent harm, which means not letting a patient die out of perceived mercy.

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