Euthanasia: dying with dignity or playing God?
Clémence Smith discusses euthanasia policies across different countries and what it means when people have the right to terminate their lives.
The topic of death makes people squirm in their seats. Despite the many uncertainties that one faces in life, death looms as an unavoidable obstacle we must all face. For those with terminal illnesses, death is not a matter of if, but when.
Choosing euthanasia can provide relief by giving patients control over their death, thus avoiding prolonged suffering. Euthanasia, despite being available for over 350 million people across the world, remains controversial; the debate is much too complex for a single article to cover. Some argue that opting for euthanasia is too momentous a decision for a single person to take. Does turning death into a medical procedure risk interfering with the natural course of life?
Firstly, it is important to distinguish between euthanasia and assisted suicide, as these terms are often used interchangeably. On the one hand, euthanasia involves a doctor actively giving the patient a lethal drug – in the UK, this is regarded as manslaughter or murder. Assisted suicide, on the other hand, requires the patient to take the drug voluntarily. Although both procedures involve medical staff, the patient’s role in each is drastically different. Active euthanasia, for example, is illegal in the German-speaking world, as it uncomfortably echoes the practice of eugenics under the Nazis.
People should have the right to choose, and euthanasia should not taint our perception of the lives that it has brought to an end
To be a candidate for euthanasia, individuals must meet a strict set of guidelines set out by healthcare professionals. Eligible patients must be terminally ill, or experiencing unbearable pain with no prospect of recovery, and have diagnoses from two separate doctors. The patient must also prove that they are sound of mind, and that their decision is their own. The process of euthanasia varies from country to country, although the pre-requisites remain roughly the same. In 2002, the Netherlands became the first country to legalise euthanasia, and Belgium quickly followed suit. In January 2022, Austria became the latest country to allow assisted suicide.
One of the main anxieties surrounding euthanasia is possible changes of heart or vulnerable patients facing pressures from others, such as their relatives. The decisions we make in life are inevitably going to be influenced by our surroundings; I do not think, however, that this subjectivity invalidates the patient’s ability to choose. Although euthanasia might not be for everyone, having it as an option might be comforting to some. Whether one opts for euthanasia or assisted suicide, however, the process is not as straightforward as it might seem. The Dutch government, for example, states that “patients have no absolute right to euthanasia and doctors no absolute duty to perform it”. Furthermore, in Austria, patients must reflect on their decision for 12 weeks (two weeks if they are terminally ill) before acquiring the lethal drug at a pharmacy.
Death will always have consequences, regardless of the circumstances. People should have the right to choose, and euthanasia should not taint our perception of the lives that it has brought to an end. Some claim that “the ability to decide your own death weakens the sanctity of life”, while others argue that euthanasia is about preserving dignity in death. In an interview with the BBC, one woman said: “I believe that you have to face death and, if you can, wait for it standing”. Former England cricket captain Ray Illingworth called for a reconsideration of euthanasia laws in the UK after watching his wife die of cancer: “What life is it? Just lying in a bed, a chunk of meat, nothing more than that”. These two testimonies beg an important question: what is left of human life if devoid of consciousness? Euthanasia enables people to live out their final days on their own terms without giving up their self-determination.
Traditionally, the Hippocratic oath has required doctors to help their patients and not to cause them harm. But what happens when patients ask to end their own lives? What comes first: upholding a patient’s will or prolonging their life? In countries where euthanasia is legal, doctors are free to refuse their patients’ requests or to refer them to a different physician. Some people worry that euthanasia will slow the momentum to find cures for diseases, or that it could even impact the quality of palliative care. Unfortunately, at present, some ailments are still incurable; while we wait for a treatment to be found, we try to ensure that patients’ wishes are respected regardless. As Dignity in Dying, a British campaigning organisation, argues: “when death is inevitable, suffering should not be”. Incorporating euthanasia into palliative care would help reduce stigma and give ensure that patients can make an informed decision.
Although we cannot predict what life will throw at us, we can control how we respond
As euthanasia becomes more widespread, so does its commercialisation. The newest development in the field, the Sarco pod, has been criticised by many for glamorising suicide. The pod, which rapidly reduces oxygen levels once the occupant has pressed a button inside it, can theoretically enable assisted suicide anywhere in the world. The founder of Exit International, Philip Nitschke, said that criticism of the pod consolidated beliefs “that a good death requires a doctor and a legal framework that preserves the gatekeeper status of the medical profession”. By claiming that doctors are gatekeepers, however, Nitschke reinforces the very argument he is trying to oppose. Doctors are not gods: they can certainly provide patients with advice, treatment, and support, but shouldn’t have ultimate control over another person’s actions.
Will euthanasia ever be legal in the UK? An estimated 45 per cent of doctors believe that other medical professionals illegally facilitate assisted suicide. A YouGov opinion survey found that 73 per cent of people support the legalisation of assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Prior to the pandemic, “an average of one Briton each week travelled to Switzerland to end their life”, according to The Guardian.
Moving forward, I think we would all benefit from having more open conversations about euthanasia. Although we cannot predict what life will throw at us, we can control how we respond. Euthanasia and palliative care are, ultimately, two sides of the same coin. Assisted suicide forces us to look at the core of our existence and reconsider our place within the wider world. If anything, trying to understand life’s great questions can be just as challenging as choices about death.