Sunday, 29 November 2015

Euthanasia: A Moral Dilemma

by Eloise Peabody-Rolf

So many people think the subject of death is taboo. This has always seemed backwards to me, to not discuss a subject which is inevitable to all of us.  So often the focus is on life; however we, as students, are always encouraged to look into the future, and far into the future is death. But, if one discusses such a topic, you’re deemed pessimistic or possibly even suicidal in thoughts. 

Over the summer, the Assisted Dying Bill was presented to Parliament through the ballot procedure. I followed the bill with interest due to my political and psychological studies, plus my interest in pursuing law in the future. The purpose of the bill was to enable adults who are terminally ill to be able to choose to have supervised assistance to end their own life, for various reasons, to relieve them of their suffering.  

Suicide is defined as the act of intentionally ending one's own life. Before the Suicide Act 1961, it was a crime to commit suicide, and anyone who attempted and failed could be prosecuted and imprisoned. Although suicide ceased to be a criminal offence in the UK, at this point in time it is illegal to help anyone kill themselves, and assisting someone in suicide can lead to imprisonment of up to 14 years.

Many of you will probably remember that in 2012 Tony Nicklinson, who had Locked-In syndrome, being paralysed from the neck down after suffering a stroke, pursued High Court action to fight for the right to die and the ability to legally end his life. Tony said his illness was ‘the closest thing to being buried alive’. In the end he made the decision to refuse food and starve himself to death.

Like Tony, the vast majority of cases who consider euthanasia are in an incurable state of illness, and the action to end their life is usually carried out by the person wanting it; however, on occasion, they bring their decision to doctors and relatives with a plea for their assistance. As mentioned earlier, Tony Nicklinson ended up killing himself without euthanasia, which most likely put his family and friends through far more pain to watch him deteriorate.

However, had Tony lived in the Netherlands, his situation would have been different. In 2002, the Netherlands was the first country to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide, although imposing a strict set of conditions: the patient must be suffering unbearable pain, their illness must be incurable, and the demand must be made in "full consciousness" by the patient; this would have enabled Tony to end his life.

In Belgium, also, the law states doctors can help patients to end their lives when they freely express a wish to die because they are suffering intractable and unbearable pain. Patients can also receive euthanasia if they have clearly stated a desire to do so before entering a coma or similar vegetative state. Germany allows assisted suicide, but ensuring that the term “euthanasia” is avoided due to its connotations within the Nazi period. The key difference in German law is that the person committing suicide must take the action, so a doctor could not give a lethal injection but could leave tablets to be taken.

Probably the most well-known of all is Switzerland: here the law is more relaxed, and thus probably explains the reasons to why people travel there to end their life so often in comparison to other countries. It allows assisted suicide as long as there are no "self-seeking motives" involved. Switzerland has tolerated the creation of organisations such as Dignitas, which provide assisted dying services for a fee. 

But, as in England, euthanasia and assisted suicide are against the law in France and Norway, so why in Europe is there such contrast in opinion?


A number of issues are raised by the idea of euthanasia.  My main argument in favour is that, everyone has a right to life, so surely it also means that everyone should also have a right to die? If someone is in considerable pain, and they know that it is not going to improve but only get worse, then they should be able to die a peaceful death with some decency and dignity. Having euthanasia also allows people to say goodbye to their family and friends on their terms, rather than having the prospect of them watching their sad and often distressing decline.

Similarly, with regard to the right of life, we allow animals who are in significant pain to be put down because we don’t want to watch them suffer as not only are they in pain, we are distressed. But when this is applied to human beings, this seems absurd. Why is this? Why the dichotomy? Both animals and humans show emotions and have feelings associated with them, but only one approach is acceptable. 

In contrast to the opinion of the right to die supporters, some may argue that if someone wants to kill themselves through euthanasia, they have the opportunity to fly to Switzerland. However if someone is terminally ill, why should they have to endure the stress and risks of travelling?

Now many argue that it’s giving people, such as the doctors too much power, and that it could be a cover up for murders; however it is possible to regulate it carefully, and at least two doctors are required to give permission where it’s currently allowed.  Understandably, one of the main concerns is that, although euthanasia is meant to be purely voluntary, it may become involuntary and, instead, forced. For example, if a family member believes their elderly mother is a burden, and they have an incurable disease such as Parkinson’s, the family member may try and persuade the mother to take the cocktail to end her life.

Although at no point am I denying that life is sacred and important, my personal belief is that if there is no expectation for any improvement in their quality of life, that it will cause more pain and distress to themselves and family, that there is absolutely no possibility of a cure, and this results in a person wanting to end their life, their wishes should be allowed to be considered and, as a compassionate society, we should provide the necessary, but very stringently controlled, channels to enable their wishes to be carried out .


As for ‘the introduction of the Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill and the opportunity it presents to allow terminally ill adults to make a considered request for medical assistance to die’, in the first vote on the issue in almost 20 years in September, after a passionate debate, MPs rejected the bill in a free vote (118 MPs in favour and 330 against).  Clearly this is an ethical, emotive and difficult debate which will be continued in the public forum in the future.

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