Euthanasia is the process of helping a person who is terminally ill or in constant pain to die. Sometimes referred to as assisted suicide or mercy killing, euthanasia is illegal in most parts of the world, but there are some places where it is legal under certain conditions. Generally, euthanasia is performed by lethal injection. In some cases, a distinction is made between euthanasia, which is administered to someone else, and assisted suicide, which the person does to himself or herself with the help of someone else.
Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician who is considered by many people to be the father of modern medicine, is said to have stated in 400 B.C., "I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel." Many doctors still follow this philosophy, which is part of the Hippocratic Oath. There are, however, other doctors who believe that their duty is to help people who are suffering, even if that means ending the life of someone who has no hope of recovery and wants to die peacefully.
Like the debate over abortion, the debate over assisted suicide is a heated one. Many people argue that quality of life is an issue, while those on the other side believe that life must be preserved at all costs. The arguments from both sides involve moral and legal ramifications. Proponents of assisted suicide, such as a group called the Hemlock Society, believe that the state should not interfere with a person's right to die. Some opponents argue that no one but God or nature should determine when a person is to die.
As of 2012, euthanasia was legal in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. In some other countries, such as Switzerland and Colombia, helping someone to die was legal under certain circumstances. In the United States, assisted suicide was legal only in the states of Washington, Oregon and Montana. Although euthanasia is illegal in many places, it often is legal for the treatment of a terminally ill patient to be stopped under the direction of the patient or, in some cases, his or her family.
The topic of euthanasia was brought to the forefront in the United States during the trial of Jack Kevorkian in the late 1990s. The doctor from Michigan claimed to have helped at least 130 people die from 1990 to 1998. In 1999, Kevorkian was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison for second-degree homicide after giving a 52-year-old patient named Thomas Youk a lethal injection in 1998.
Animals, especially dogs and cats, are routinely and humanely put to death in many animal shelters when homes for them cannot be found. It also is a common practice for owners of elderly pets to have their animals put down when the pets' pain makes the animals' life unbearable. Farmers also have practiced putting animals out of their misery when they know that the animals cannot be healed.