American death sentences have been on the decline due to the high costs incurred in the execution of capital punishments compared to life imprisonment without parole. Additionally, deterrence and retribution justification in the application of death sentences are invalid as there is no significant decrease in the crime rate (De Muniz, 2019). With the push for abandonment of the death penalty, the dilemma entails the alternative where prisoners serve life sentences without parole. The prisoner, knowing he would die in prison having suffered psychologically for the remainder of his life, opts to request euthanasia. This raises the question of whether convicts serving life imprisonments with no parole should be allowed to choose medically assisted deaths? Medically assisted death or euthanasia is permitted on the grounds of physical and psychological suffering where the person wants to escape an unbearable, constant pain (MacKinnon and Fiala, 2018). Prisoners serving long sentences allude to the constant suffering in prisons as a fate worse than death; an undignified life thus euthanasia acts as a pre-emptive action against the long sentences. There are two types of euthanasia; active and passive euthanasia. Active euthanasia is the deliberate action of giving patients lethal drugs in an attempt to end their lives while passive euthanasia is the stopping of treatment for patients if it will lead to death.
The controversies regarding the dilemma stem from two questions; should prisoners be allowed to escape their psychological suffering through euthanasia or should they be forced to endure incarceration as a punishment. In states where euthanasia is allowed, assisted suicide can be based on moral suffering. First, where life in prison is a fate that compounds psychological suffering for the remainder of the mortal life, euthanasia should be a viable option. However, inmates are deemed incapable of rational choices when it comes to questions regarding life or death thus the decision to request euthanasia is unjustified. This is the basis of banning objects that may help prisoners take their lives such as sharp objects and belts in prisons.
Second, there is no legal basis for denying prisoners’ rights to assisted suicide in jurisdictions that allow for euthanasia such as the state of Oregon. In Oregon, the decision to engage in euthanasia rather than live out the remainder of life is permitted. In 2019, the number of prescriptions for engagement in voluntary death was 2,518, and the resulting deaths were 1,657. Therefore, there is a presumption that their request should be treated according to the same standards as those of other individuals.
The professional codes of ethics involved in the euthanasia dilemma include; American Medical Association (AMA) code and American Nurses Association (ANA) doctrine. Both codes of ethics believe that medical practitioners should not be involved in interactions where intentional termination of life is the primary objective. Active euthanasia is in direct violation of the ethical goals and traditions of the medical profession which are embodied in the Hippocratic oath ((MacKinnon and Fiala, 2018). The Hippocratic oath, states that doctors should not harm either intentionally or unintentionally. However, they recognize the autonomy of patients thus allow for the cessation or initiation of life-prolonging treatments on patients with terminal illnesses. Life sentences with no parole present analogies with terminal illness as it doesn’t change the outcome of death or suffering. Therefore, euthanasia rather brings it about more quickly in the absence of any prospect of enjoying a quality life. From a medical perspective, prisoners should be treated as free citizens as they are not denied access to medical treatment as part of their punishment. If euthanasia would be granted to a free citizen then the same should apply to prisoners.
Conflict of Interest and Moral Solution
However, administering euthanasia to convicts can lead to the development of conflicts, professional versus familial duties. Life imprisonment sentences are mostly reserved for murder cases and aggravated assaults which results in the death of a victim. The victim’s family may want to keep the prisoner alive since they take satisfaction in his suffering (Kort-Butler and Ray, 2019). Voluntary suicide would therefore reduce this satisfaction. However, life in prison without parole is based on public protection not because it is a proportionate punishment (Garrett, Jakubow, and Desai, 2017). The victim’s family decision is not sufficient to deny prisoners the right to die if their fate will indeed be worse than death is, they are forced to stay alive.
Related: Sample essay on Death Penalty
The most moral solution to the dilemma would be the administration of psychiatric care. Convicts serving life sentences view prisons as tombstones thus have no purpose in the continuity of life. However, an individual’s life does not end when convicted to a life sentence thus prisons should offer adequate psychiatric support and treatment to ensure convicts are in their right state of mind. Mental wellness among prisoners is key to avoid euthanasia requests borne out of necessity to escape their pre-determined fate as they will have reason to live.
Theories Applicable to the Dilemma
Consequentialist ideology utilizes the utilitarianism theory of morality, which advocates actions that increase the amount of good and foster happiness for the greatest number of people (Baron, 2018). Consequentialists propose that if death is the best possible outcome, euthanasia should be administered. Therefore, where life sentences present convicts with a fate far worse than death, death provides the greatest good, and assisted suicide is a viable option.
Aristotle’s golden mean theory holds that virtue lies between two extremes. Moral behavior is envisioned as the moderate position between two contrasting extremes. Regarding the dilemma, the moderation is between administering euthanasia or allowing nature to take its course. On one extreme, allowing a prisoner who is not terminally ill to undergo euthanasia equates to a death penalty or murder. The continued moral suffering represents the other extreme side. In this case, the moderation would entail assisted suicide for prisoners with terminal diseases only. Therefore, euthanasia would involve the discontinuity or initiation of treatment.
Natural law theory states that human beings possess inherent values or right and wrong that steer our behavior and reasoning. These moral standards form the basis of a just society. Natural law upholds the sanctity of life and any practice of taking away life is wrong (Pineo, 2019). Human beings’ instinct is survival thus euthanasia contradicts this universal goal. Euthanasia also degrades our dignity by way of eliminating the sole goal of survival incorporated in our reasoning.
Justification for Most Appropriate Theory
The theory that works best regarding the dilemma is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism concepts argue that where prisoners view life imprisonment without parole as the greater evil than death, medically assisted suicide should be administered when requested. Aristotle’s golden mean theory suggests that passive euthanasia be administered to convicts serving life imprisonment without parole suffering from a terminal medical condition. However, this may also lead to continued suffering since passive euthanasia is slow and painful. Also, there is no measure in terms of morality regarding the use of passive euthanasia over active euthanasia. In both, death is a result of an action done thus there is no ground for moral differentiation since the consequence is similar. The limitation in natural law theory occurs where the goal of survival can be hindered by natural forces such as psychological torture where the outcome is prolonged suffering and, ultimately, death. The natural goal of survival, in this case, can be considered the greater evil compared to death. The choice of utilitarianism concept over psychiatric care is borne out of the respect for the prisoner’s autonomy by medical practitioners. Euthanasia requests authority trample over forced psychiatric care.
Baron, M. W. (2018). Kantian ethics almost without apology. Cornell University Press.
De Muniz, P. J. (2019). Deterrence and Retribution Are Not Served by Oregon’s Death Penalty. Willamette L. Rev., 56, 29.
Garrett, B. L., Jakubow, A., & Desai, A. (2017). The American death penalty decline. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-), 107(4), 561-642.
Kort-Butler, L. A., & Ray, C. M. (2019). Public support for the death penalty in a red state: The distrustful, the angry, and the unsure. Punishment & Society, 21(4), 473-495.
MacKinnon, B., & Fiala, A. (2018). Ethics: Theory and contemporary issues. Nelson Education.
Pineo, S. (2019). Controversy and the Death Penalty. Across the Bridge: The Merrimack Undergraduate Research Journal, 1(1), 5.