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Is Stephen Hawking’s call for assisted suicide right? Decoding the morality of ending a life

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By Rukma Singh

“I would consider assisted suicide only if I were in great pain or felt I had nothing more to contribute but was just a burden to those around me”, said Stephen Hawking in a recent interview with Tara O’Briain for BBC.

Stephen Hawking, a 73-year-old physicist, is a living tale of extraordinaire. He has been suffering from the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis since the age of 21, but that hasn’t deterred him from achieving what he wanted in life. Even after a lifetime of scientific contributions to the world, the physicist believes he hasn’t done enough.

He continues to be motivated and believes that he still has a long way to go.“I am damned if I’m going to die before I have unraveled more of the universe,” he says.

In an interview, Hawking commented on the much-debated concept of assisted suicide. He said, “To keep someone alive against their wishes is the ultimate indignity.”

Hawking’s comment has once again sparked the debate on the subject of assisted suicide.

There are a number of aspects involved with this issue, and to choose to go for or against it is a tough decision to make.

Key influential figures have come forth to present their opinion about the same. In addition to Hawking, there’s Pope Francis, who, in November 2014 said that the ‘“right-to-die” is a sin against God and creation.” He gave his comments in response to the international movement that had been going on to legalize assisted suicide, especially in India and the UK.

Interestingly, another religious leader – Desmond Tutu – a Nobel peace laureate and archbishop emeritus of Cape Town lent his full-fledged support to Britain’s plans of legally allowing assisted death.

‘The Right To Die’

A demand for a right to die is simple, but the differential understanding of key concepts involved in the debate, means that any model of assisted suicide retains certain aspects that put its moral stature to test.

Those in favour of assisted suicide claim that every person has the right to decide what to do with their lives as long as they aren’t inflicting any harm on others. Moreover, they believe that it is a moral duty of the society to relive their fellow humans from their sufferings, instead of choosing not to help them and encouraging them to live a deplorable life.

The Conflict 

On the contrary, opponents of the same argue that people have a moral obligation to respect and preserve all forms of life. They should strive for the creation of a peaceful society wherein all humans co- exist, and not a society where questions of life and death are in the bare hands of people, holding the power of such a momentous decision.

To delve deeper into the debate, it is essential to note the key aspect of the debate, the difference between active and passive euthanasia (assisted suicide).

Active euthanasia occurs when the medical professionals deliberately do something that causes the death of the patient, such as administering a lethal substance.

Passive euthanasia occurs when the patient dies because the medical professionals withhold the common treatments necessary for keeping the patient alive, for example, switching off life support or disconnecting a feeding tube.

The Debate Of Morality

The question which one is ‘better’ out of the two, has often been equated to asking the real difference between ‘killing’ and ‘letting die’. Many people in favour of passive euthanasia argue that it is morally acceptable to withhold treatment and let the patient die.

A number of doctors agree with the same because it frees them from the non-adherence to the basic rule of medicine : “Thou shalt not kill.” The rule also says, “Thou needst not strive officiously, to keep alive.”

Is There A Real Difference After All?

However, there are some people who argue that there is no real difference between the two modes as both result in death. If stopping treatment is a deliberate act, so is deciding not to carry out a particular treatment.

Philosophers, on the other hand, argue that if we had to choose one method with higher morality, it’ll be active euthanasia, because it ends in the loss of life with lesser pain and in an easier manner.

 The International Debate

The most recent development is the California Senate’s approval of a Physician-Assisted Suicide Bill that would allow some terminally ill patients to obtain medication to end their lives. Opponents of the Bill say it is dangerous.

“Californians with terminal diseases should have the autonomy to approach death on their own terms, and I look forward to continuing this policy discussion in the Assembly,” California Senator Bill Monning, (D-Carmel), one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement on June 4th,2015.

In Ireland, however, a whole new advocacy group against assisted suicide has sprung up. The group argues that legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia would hint towards a direct discrimination against the disabled. This argument happens to be the most widely given and accepted, in debates all across the globe.

Doctors claim that more often it isn’t used by older people, but by “middle-aged to younger-older” people, where the main reason seems to be a fear of disability or a fear of age-related diseases.

The Case Of India

In India, the prime reason why the debate about euthanasia began and gained force was Aruna Shanbaug,a nurse working in the KEM  hospital in Mumbai.  She was strangled and sodomized by Sohanlal Walmiki, a sweeper. During the attack she was strangled with a chain, and the deprivation of oxygen had left her in a vegetative state since 1973. A judgment was passed in wake of social activist Pinki Virani’s plea to the highest court in December 2009 under the Constitutional provision of “Next Friend”. In 2011, the Government passed a historic judgement-law permitting passive euthanasia in the country. This, however, did not help Aruna. The court rejected the plea to discontinue Aruna’s life support due to the fact that the hospital staff that treated her did not support euthanizing her.She died from pneumonia on 18 May 2015, after being in a coma for 42 years.

  • There are few reasons someone would want to die or want to see a family member die instead of watching them die of a slow painful death. Also with men who have always been prove men. Then once they can no longer stand to use the tiolet their pride is taken from them. I remembering writting a letter to the Doctor at the hospital about my father to stop his pain.

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  • There are few reasons someone would want to die or want to see a family member die instead of watching them die of a slow painful death. Also with men who have always been prove men. Then once they can no longer stand to use the tiolet their pride is taken from them. I remembering writting a letter to the Doctor at the hospital about my father to stop his pain.

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Are We Alone In The Universe? Scientists Contemplate

This is a question that impacts not only science but theology, philosophy and other areas. It’s a curiosity. It’s part of being human.

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galaxy, universe
Hubble's view of a galaxy in Ursa Major, 65 million light-years away. VOA

The Hubble Telescope has given us spectacular pictures from space, from the dramatic image of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, some 6,500 to 7,000 light years from Earth, to a snapshot of nearly 10,000 galaxies, including some that may be among the most distant known, existing when the universe was just 800 million years old.

Awe-inspiring though they are, they are not detailed enough to help us in our search for life in the trillions of galaxies across the universe. And physicist Justin Crepp says the prospects for finding life out there are very good.

“If tens of a percent of stars have planets that could resemble the earth and potentially have life, then the implications are that there are billions of them just within our Milky Way Galaxy.”

Crepp, an associate professor of Physics at the University of Notre Dame, has been hard at work answering the age-old question, “Are we alone in the universe?” As a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Exoplanet Science Strategy, his job is to make recommendations on how and what the U.S. will explore in space over the next decade.

In September, the committee released its initial 260-page report detailing seven recommendations. First, it encourages NASA to fly a space-based mission to directly image and characterize earth-like planets around other stars and take pictures of them. But Crepp says that’s a very challenging technical problem.

“If you try to image a planet, you run into several difficulties,” he explains. “One is that their separation is very small on the sky. So, you need to spatially resolve and isolate the signal of the planet. So, you need a certain size telescope to do that. The problem is earth’s atmosphere blurs out the images, and so it exacerbates the issue.”

Another issue is that the starlight is so bright, scientists need to find a way to block it to see the planets around it. The committee thinks the technology to do that exists, but they must be able to get above the earth’s atmosphere with the right equipment to make it happen.

 

WFIRST, universe
WFIRST, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, shown here in an artist’s rendering, will provide astronomers with Hubble-quality images of large swaths of the sky. VOA

 

Better eyes on the skies

That leads to the committee’s second recommendation, this one, for the National Science Foundation: complete work on the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile, and start to build the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii. The new technology in these super telescopes will produce images 10 times sharper than those from the Hubble, even though they are ground-based.

Their highly sophisticated equipment will also allow scientists to greatly enhance the work of the third recommendation: completing the partially funded Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope or WFIRST. When launched into space, it will search for and gather information on planets hundreds of light years away.

Crepp says that data will help scientists learn what the planets are made of.

“Is it a giant puffy atmosphere, or is it a rock or somewhere in between? Is it a water world? We don’t know the answers to these yet, but we’re just starting to get the first hints and inclinations what these worlds might be like around other stars,” Crepp said.

WFIRST, universe
Cosmic Crash with Dwarf Galaxy Reshaped Milky Way: Study. (IANS)

More importantly, scientists will try to determine if there are any signs of life.

The panel’s other recommendations include building new highly sensitive equipment, creating new ways for multidisciplinary teams all over the world to collaborate on various aspects of the project, and forming a profitable investor program to further laboratory, ground-based and theoretical telescopic research.

The big question

Crepp notes that people have wondered for millennia if our planet was unique in the universe, whether we are truly alone.

Also Read: NASA Hubble Completes First Science Operations

“This is a question that impacts not only science but theology, philosophy and other areas. It’s a curiosity. It’s part of being human. Is our world special? Is it isolated? Are there other planets out there that have life? Can we communicate with them? Are they our distant brethren? How are we related to one another? If so, what can we learn from one another? So, that’s the motivation for a lot of people on our panel to go to work on a daily basis.”

The report from the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Exoplanet Science Strategy will be reviewed by Congress. Portions of it may be included in the final 2020-2030 Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, which will fund the continuing search for exoplanets and the study of extraterrestrial life. (VOA)