Euthanasia Natural Law Theory states that an action is only considered “right” if it does not intentionally or directly violate any of the four basic intrinsic goods that thirteenth-century philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas described. According to Aquinas, the four basic intrinsic goods are: human life, human procreation, human knowledge and human sociability. So for example, according to natural law theory, using contraceptives such as condoms or birth control pills would not be morally permissible because it directly and intentionally violates the second intrinsic good: human procreation.
Not all situations, however, are as straightforward as right or wrong. In some situations, it is impossible to take an action without violating one of the four basic intrinsic goods. This is where the doctrine of double effect comes into play. The doctrine of double effect declares that an action which violates one of the basic goods is acceptable if it also brings about a good effect and meets four specific conditions. The first condition is intrinsic permissibility, meaning apart from its effects, is the action morally permissible? If it is, we move on to the next condition which is necessity.
If there is no possible way to avoid the bad effects that will come to pass, then this condition is met as well. The third condition is nonintentionality. To meet this condition, the bad effect must be unintentional. This brings us to the final condition which is proportionality. This condition maintains that the bad effect must be proportional to the good effect. An example of a situation in which the doctrine of double effect would be consulted is if a pregnant woman needed to have a hysterectomy in order to live. A hysterectomy would kill the fetus, but save the woman’s life.
According to the doctrine of double effect, a hysterectomy would be morally permissible because it satisfies all of the four conditions. Apart from its effects, the action is permissible because it saves the woman’s life, so the first condition is met. There is no possible way to avoid killing the fetus without saving her life, so the second condition is met. The doctors aren’t intentionally killing the child they are trying to save the woman’s life, so the third condition is met. And finally, destroying the fetus’ life is proportional to saving the woman’s life, so the fourth condition is met.
Euthanasia is another subject in which the doctrine of double effect is usually consulted. Euthanasia typically is referred to as the practice of ending a life on the grounds of mercy. With that being said, there are two main types of euthanasia called active euthanasia and passive euthanasia. Active euthanasia describes actively attempting to end a patient’s life by means of drugs or a lethal injection. Passive euthanasia is defined as removing or withholding a medicine or treatment that could have prolonged the patient’s life.
Recently, there has been much debate on whether or not passive euthanasia is as morally wrong as active euthanasia. Some claim that passive euthanasia is not a direct violation of the basic good of human life, therefore it is morally permissible. They declare active euthanasia, on the other hand, is a direct violation, and therefore is not morally permissible. I will concede that this statement is technically true in a few rare situations, but in the majority of passive euthanasia cases, the patient is being taken off life support because he is tired of living and simply wants to die.
And if that is the case, who’s to tell some terminally ill patient that he’s just going to have to live out his remaining days off treatment in pain and without hope. If a terminal patient wants to die, he should be accommodated not simply ignored. If some patients would like to refuse treatment, and live out the rest of their days naturally, that’s their decision too. It’s the patient’s life. Doctors should act on the requests of their patients, not what some board of completely irrelevant doctors thinks. So according to the double doctrine effect, is euthanasia morally permissible?
As an example of a case of active euthanasia let’s use an example of a terminally ill patient who suffers chronic pain and fatigue. He would like to be a subject of active euthanasia so the pain will go away and he can die peacefully. Is the action of the active euthanasia morally permissible? Yes, because the euthanasia would end the pain and suffering of the patient. On to the second condition, there is no possible way extinguish the pain without ending the patient’s life. This brings us to the third condition, nonintentionality.
The doctor is not attempting to murder the patient by killing him, simply relieve the patient of his pain. The final condition, proportionality, is debatable, but I consider it to be satisfied. To the patient, ending his life is well worth ending the unbearable pain. What about passive euthanasia? Let’s consider a patient who is not getting better despite chemotherapy treatments and wishes to stop the treatment. Is that action of taking a patient off of chemotherapy morally permissible? If it will relieve the patient of unnecessary pain and the patient wishes to do so, then yes.
Is it possible to stop the pain of the chemotherapy without taking the patient off the treatment? No it is not, so the second condition is satisfied. Is the effect of patient being taken off treatment intended to be evil? No, it’s not meant to be evil, simply make the patient more comfortable. Are the actions proportionate? Yes, being taken off of the chemotherapy which is not curing the patient is proportionate to stopping the pain and giving the patient a more comfortable last few days of his life. It is clear that euthanasia is arguably morally permissible in some cases.