The word Euthanasia comes from the Greek word euthanatos, meaning easy death. But is this an accurate description of an issue that is anything but easy? One thing is certain, everyone has an opinion.
As it currently stands, in this country the perpetrator in an assisted suicide can face up to fourteen years behind bars. And yet, the description of euthanasia by the BBC’s website is:
Euthanasia is the termination of a very sick person’s life in order to relieve them of their suffering.
The issue of assisted death has raised its head again recently with the publicity surrounding Tony Nicklinson and his fight to allow a doctor to help him to die. Heated discussions in the media confirmed that opinion is, if still divided, still strong. One argument is that animals are treated with more compassion than humans – vets are allowed to carry out the termination of a life of pain and suffering where doctors are not. But feeling on this is also divided – should animals be treated as a completely different issue, effectively asking are we right to consider them as important as human beings? I asked a group of colleagues for their views.
Jo*, who considers herself a committed Christian said:
“Nobody has the right to take the life of someone else. The Ten Commandments are clear- Thou shall not kill. Christians focus not on just the suffering but on the life itself. And animals should not be considered in the same way as humans.”
Gail* told me the issue was very close to her heart:
“A friend of mine told me that someone she knew was dying, painfully, from cancer. She believed that medical staff could not give him more morphine because it would kill him and they may be prosecuted. Even animals are treated better than this.”
Dave* offered a different view:
“Even if it were legalized, euthanasia would take considerable policing. The difficulty would be in proving that the decision really was the choice of the patient and if the patient is incapable of communication, how could this be determined?”
John* feels strongly in favour of the legalisation of euthanasia:
“This is about humanity. Society has advanced a long way in terms of having cures or treatments for many illnesses. However those treatments themselves can be worse than the effects of the illness and sometimes are purely about keeping someone alive rather than curing them. Take Chemotherapy as an example. If there is a good chance of extending life, fine, but if it is to just give a few months of a life spent in and out of hospital with slow deterioration, increasing pain and an inevitable consequence why shouldn’t an individual be able to choose when they have had enough?”
But can it be proved that it is, absolutely, the decision of the person concerned? That, in itself, could be extremely difficult. If the sufferer is incapable of speech, for example, or with a condition such as locked-in syndrome, how does the carer determine that death is what their loved one truly wants? If, like Stephen Hawking, there is still a conscious mind that is a prisoner in a body yet has so much to say, who has the right to decide that they are not worth keeping alive? Should it ever be up to a third party to make the decision?
Yet when I think of my own decision, to effectively kill my own pet cat who was in pain and could not stand up, who was wasting away to a fur covered skeleton, I do not doubt for a second that I did the right thing. Thousands of animals are destroyed every day to end their suffering, often the vet makes the decision that this is the kindest thing to do, easing the burden of guilt for the pet owner. But if the same decision needs to be made about a human being – a husband, a wife, a child?
A doctor can advise that a patient is ‘brain dead’, where machines can be switched off, legally, and the patient dies. But if the brain is functioning and begging for an end, the doctor cannot help. And neither, as the law stands, can anyone else. The arguments for and against will continue, with, at the time of writing, no foreseeable solution.
Robin McKie, The Observer, Sunday 9th September 2012
Compassion in Dying – Free information on your rights at the end of your life under U.K law: Tel: 0800 999 2434 (11.00 am to 3.00pm Mon to Fri)
*Names have been changed