Death with Dignity and the Harm Principle

On November 1, 2014 Brittany Maynard died in Portland, Oregon under the states Death with Dignity Act. She moved there from her home of San Francisco in the spring of 2014 after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Prior to her death she joined forces with Compassion & Choices, “the leading nonprofit organization committed to helping everyone have the best death possible (Compassion & Choices)”, which launched her story into the forefront of American news. It all started with this video: 

According to The Brittany Fund: “Death-with-dignity laws are voluntary. An eligible person can request the prescription, but no doctor is obligated to provide it. Once a prescription is written, the patient chooses when and whether to fill it — or take it.” The organization also states that Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act in its 17 years “It has been thoroughly documented by the state health department, investigated by medical researchers and monitored by the news media. None of the concerns raised by opponents about coercion or abuse have ever materialized.”

However many people and organizations are against death-with-dignity laws and condemn proponents of it. For example Texas Right to Life says it “strips away the value of human life” and the Vatican condemned Maynard’s personal decision. But should those who use death-with-dignity be condemned?

John Stuart Mill from constitution.org

John Stuart Mill in his writing On Liberty outlines the harm principle. If a bad act of an individual regards others they should be punished.  If a bad act does not regard others than there are two routes. If it also has bad consequences for other people then the individual should be punished. If the bad act does not have consequences for other people then society cannot punish them but is justified in their disapproval.

The harm that can be caused by death-with-dignity varies and thus so does the possibility of punishment. Maynard had the full support of her husband Dan Diaz, mother Debbie Ziegler, and stepfather Gary Holmes. They spent her last months with her fulfilling her bucket list. John La Grange, who lost his own wife to ovarian cancer after much suffering, says Maynard “gave her husband a gift” in that he didn’t have to watch her suffer to the fullest extent (People). Although I and others do not consider Maynard’s death a bad act the harm principle can still be applied. It affected others (her family), but did not have negative consequences (they were more at peace with her less painful passing) so it lends itself to disapproval legitimate.

In September 2014 Belgium’s government approved the request of Van Den Bleeken, who had been in prison for more than 30 years on charges of murder and rape, for transfer to a hospital to receive euthanasia on psychiatric grounds (The Big Story). Euthanasia is widely accepted for the terminally ill in Belgium, however in this case it raises the question of if someone who is bad should be allowed a dignified death. It allows him to escape the entirety of his sentences and thus removes the justice his victims had. This sisters of one of his murder victims were quoted as saying “let him rot in his cell.” Because this is a bad act which regards others punishment would be necessary according to the harm principle.

Jack Kevorkian on the cover of Times from time.com

Lastly I would like to bring up Dr. Jack Kevorkian known for willingly helping terminally ill patients of his end their lives and subsequent murder trials in the 90s. His first “patient” was Janet Adkins in 1990, coincidentally in the state of Oregon where Maynard just ended her life. In a note she left Adkins wrote “I have Alzheimer’s disease and do not want to let it progress any further. I don’t choose to put my family or myself through the agony of this terrible disease (Oregon Live).” Kevorkian was the middle man, to his patients he did a good thing and the reactions of their families varied. In his case the harm principle is interpreted differently by those affected. Ultimately the court found him guilty of a bad act with consequences for others thus the prison sentence. However death-with-dignity laws now exist in 5 states and is a controversial that will never be completely supported nor completely hated. Thus the degree of harm will always be up to interpretation.

Hayley Nakos

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2 thoughts on “Death with Dignity and the Harm Principle

  1. You post was very interesting. I think that it should be up to the individual that is involved to decide whether to die or not. I understand that a person has many close relatives and friends but if they were close with the person they should support him/her and let him/her do as they please. I can see how there can be many circumstances involved with some taking someones life or themselves taking their own life. in the case of the man in prison I believe that he should stay in prison and not allowed to be euthanized. He committed a crime punishable to life in prison, he should’t be allowed to take the easy way out.

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  2. I think your post raises some very interesting questions about the value of human life. However, I simply think that it is too complicated an issue to be solved simply. If a person attempts suicide but is unsuccessful, this is considered a crime. Therefore, what if dignified death does not go as planned, and the person ends up still alive but even worse of than he or she was before? There are so many potential issues and conflicts with current laws that I do not see this being solved any time in the near future.

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