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Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide

Updated on March 10, 2014

De-criminalizing Euthanasia


Definition

Presumably, the term 'assisted suicide, Last Right or Euthanasia', may be known to most of the readers, but to refresh memories, it is generally defined as an act undertaken by a physician, intentionally, to end the life of a terminally ill patient, with the request or consent of the patient.

Background.

Assisted suicide or Right to die had been in limelight for some time with continuing debate and discourses to decide whether people in general want to legalize and de-criminalize it or not under current changing world, but unfortunately no unanimous resolution has yet been achieved to de-criminalize euthanasia as a genuine right of a terminally ill person who has no control over his daily routines or is suffering mentally or physical with pain and agony, beyond the limit of tolerance, as well as those who can't communicate to make their wishes known to others for meaningful purposes. In this regards, the majority of people around the world prefer legalization of assisted suicide under special circumstances while 1/4th are in favor of banning.

Prevailing suicide Acts, make it a criminal offense to encourage or assist a suicide or a suicide attempt, in many countries. Anyone doing so could face up to 14 years in prison under homicide legislation. Those who go to some European countries where euthanasia is de-criminalized in order to end their lives as well as those who help them in pursuit of this desire, may not face legal prosecution but are not considered praise worth by people in the religious domain.

Opponents of legalization seem to perceive for millennia that life is a sacred gift from the creator and no one has the right to self destroy it under any circumstances, be it for mercy or on compassionate basis and society has an obligation to protect lives opposing legalization of euthanasia , if approved as it will inevitably pose threat to mankind. The law may be applied to end the life of those considered worthless or undesirable by concerned relatives or other people who may persuade the patient for voluntary euthanasia.

Strangely, suicide doesn't consider a crime, but physician assisting suicide to help and alleviate the suffering of a terminally ill person is regarded as a crime?

Proponents of legalization support their claim advocating that all people have a moral right to choose freely what they want to do with their lives, inflicting no harm on others. This includes the right to choose life or death under extremely unbearable conditions, should be honored as the Last Right of the person concerned under legalized euthanasia.

Is Euthanasia, Right or Wrong?

To answer above question, we may have to evaluate our understanding of life in terms of spiritual (sacred texts) and rational wisdom under prevailing environment.

Though most of the followers of various faith groups, adhere to their respective scriptures, ancient traditions or understanding of life, advocating that it is inherently wrong and unjustifiable to help some one, terminally ill and handicapped to end his/her life even on moral and compassionate grounds but new awareness is surging among people of all walks of life to reconsider this perception, due to the currently available advanced medical means that treats diseases and terminal illness effectively to cure and increase the life expectancy of terminally ill patients, prolonging their sufferings. Arguably, it is incumbent upon all of us to help/relieve the suffering of fellow human beings and respect their dignity. This suggests that religious and traditional people should revisit and reconsider their beliefs regarding the meaning of life.

Appreciably, many, who had been following the traditional religious understanding of this issue are now leaning toward de-criminalizing the applicable laws to permit and honor the last wish of those who can't cope with their miseries of life and are wishing to depart from this world with dignity.

Recently, many counties have legalized euthanasia after many years of public discourse, including government commission on this subject. Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Australia and many European countries have made several attempts to legalize euthanasia under special circumstances, but there still exist rejection from the people of various religious groups.

Initially it was considered appropriate to alleviate the sufferings of old age people from their irreversible deceases but nowadays, some countries are attempting to allow euthanasia for young children, born with dementia, amnesia and Alzheimer's disease'. In all those jurisdictions, safeguards criteria and procedures were put in place to control the practices to ensure and prevent abuse or misuse of euthanasia.

Religious Perception.

Followers of monotheistic and other scriptures, oppose & prohibit, the practice of 'Euthanasia', often advocating that hastened dying is not a genuine expression of faith and is a denial of God's presence and power. It is often believed that assisted dying with medication to relieve suffering caused by incurable illness is morally wrong and theologically impermissible because of God's sovereignty and sanctity of human life. Many oppose euthanasia due to the belief that destroying life created in the image of God is contrary of their belief and conscience. There may exist a legitimate diversity of opinion among religious people about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not with respect to abortion and euthanasia.

Understanding of various faith groups is summarized below.

  • Roman Catholic leaders have been particularly vocal in condemning assisted suicide even, on moral grounds for eliminating suffering as it violates the divine law. In spite of that a poll suggests that 56% now are in favor of a change to allow that.
  • Hindus believe that doctors should not assist a patient for death as it will cause the soul and the body to be separated at an unnatural time and it would damage the 'karma', of all concerned. Hence physician assisted dying cannot be allowed as it breaches the teaching of 'Ahimsa', (doing no harm).
  • Islam forbids assisted suicide, quoting Quranic verse 4:29 where God says, "do not kill yourselves, for verily Allah has been to you most merciful" . The concept of life, not worthy of living does not exist in Islam.
  • Judaism considers assisted suicide as an offense against the deity who is the author of life.
  • Mormon believes that euthanasia, including 'assisted suicide', violates the commandments of God. However the Church recognizes that when a person is in the final stages of terminal illness, there may be difficult decisions to be taken.

Some in the medical profession and disability rights groups also argue that euthanasia should not be de-criminalized as it is there to protect the vulnerable in society. Many consider this approach as a slippery slope while others believe that helping to end a painful life, should be considered as a good deed of doctors in fulfilling their moral obligation.

Should Euthanasia Be Permissible?

Apparently medical disciplines are here, not only to improve patient's quality of life as well as to increase life span by preventing death, but some time it is beyond the doctor's capability to save the life of a terminally ill person and they can't do much except to let the nature take its course. This waiting time could be very painful for the patient and other concerned ones. At this juncture in time, often patient wants to request euthanasia when the patient loses his tolerance to bear the pain and helpless situation and want to exercise right to die in order to alleviate his sufferings with the help of a doctor.

As the life span of people around the world has increased considerably due to the advancement in Medical Sciences & the available health care system, we often see old age senior citizens surpassing the age of 85 and above but confined to bed in palliate care or other facility. For the terminally ill & disable patients due to physical or mental disorders, being unable to have control over their bodies and functions, who are incapable, incompetent and who have no scientifically proven hope for reversibility; it should be the patient's decision to choose life over death and neither doctor nor government or the relative have jurisdiction to deny patient's right. These patients get frustrated with pain and suffering and when it comes to a point of no recovery, they may say that enough is enough, we can't bear it any more and would like to end our lives. This plea and request may not be honored due to the prevailing civil laws that prohibit ending the life either acting solely or with the help of a doctor & hence the patient can't do anything to end the suffering. This trend will continue till the constitution is amended to de-criminalize & permit this assisted suicide .

Financial aspect of confining terminally ill patients into palliative care center is another liability that is difficult for the patient or relative to bear for unjustifiable longevity of life and often they do not have the resources to pay doctor's, the hospital's and palliative care charges. Knowing that the patient's life will not get better, it would be appropriate to honor the last right of the patient saving time and money.

Following the religious doctrine in this regard may not justify killing people in war or for criminal offenses which also go against the scriptures. Nations have fought many wars for religious or political objective and thousands of people are often killed in that process. So why it is of utmost concern of religious groups to oppose mercy killing when it is deemed necessary.

Recent Supreme Court Ruling in the case of Hassan Rasouli, who had a benign brain tumor, asking doctors to take family consent before withdrawing life sustaining treatment where such a decision is anticipated in the death of the patient . As it is benign, and he was operated for it with no appreciable improvement, there may be a remote possibility that he will live like vegetable, His family would like to keep him in support system, won't do much to ease his suffering and it would be a burden on taxpayers. In this case his relatives have to do benefit analysis and decide what is good for the patient and them.

At this juncture of time there are many who had opposed euthanasia in the past are now extending support for assisted suicide, for those who are tired of living over the age of ~75. They suggest that opponents of euthanasia should try to live in the body of a terminally ill patient to feel the suffering of the patient in order to understand his last right and then make a rational judgement to support or oppose euthanasia.

Polls regarding choice to end one's life based on rational wisdom shows that many countries support the idea of de-criminalizing assisted suicide while others jurisdictions are awaiting for the respective legislative bodies or the Supreme Court to do the same. Many jurisdictions and countries have changed their criminal code to accept this basic right of the terminally ill person, but still a lot has to be done to adopt this policy universally. The poll also reflects that only Baptists, Muslims, Jews and Hindus do not have a majority in favor of a change.

The proponent of euthanasia justify the taking of human life on moral grounds by describing it as a truly compassionate act aimed at the relief of human suffering.

Some churches under Life and Death with Dignity policy, affirms the right of each individual to determine for self, or through a guardian the extent through which the medical community or family may interfere with the treatment of a terminal, or irreversible condition, by the use of Living Wills.

In support of euthanasia one may say that a second opinion or consultation with a physician should be taken to ensure that all criteria have been met before proceeding with euthanasia.

Personal Views

Though, it is not an easy task to favor assisted suicide/euthanasia or oppose it as both sides has pro & cons. Favoring legalization seems to be appealing & powerful due to our capacity for compassion and obligation to support individual choice and self determination while opposing legalization suggests us going against the fundamental reverence for life created by God. Though opposing and hurling dawn euthanasia seems to be a slippery slope undertaking due to the perceived gifted nature of life implanted spiritually.

I personally endorse euthanasia for those patients who are at the apex or cliff of their life span and are terminally, physically or mentally with no scientifically proven hope of reversing for betterment and who have tried every avenue of available medical health care but failed. If they desire to end their lives, the applicable laws should not put obstacles in their way of achieving salvation from their pain & miseries.

Patients who are confined to Hospital's ECU for brain disease, ALS (neuromuscular disease---thickening of tissue) & other lingering on diseases or those who are in Palliative care & similar facilities for getting medical services for comfort only but no alleviation of their suffering and pain are often like vegetable. Palliative care claims that patients are receiving services to ease their suffering is not justifiable or right. In their condition, medicine struggle and pull patient away from death, prolong their lives & they continue to suffer more and more. Often a point is reached where the purpose and meaning of life as well as its positive attributes are lost or diminished. At this stage patient plea to end pain, torture and deteriorated life could be honored on mercy & compassionate grounds. This is also an obligated good deed that society should look after.

There is a dire need for government to act and de-criminalize assisted suicide, allowing people to choose what they want in terms of ending the life. Euthanasia and Last Right be given to the people to decide their fate. Medical Aid to facilitate assisted suicide should also be considered as a mean of providing help to alleviate suffering.

It is time for all sensible people to think rationally about this issue and exert pressure on the respective governments to de-criminalize euthanasia under certain circumstances in order to alleviate suffering of terminal ill patients whose conditions has been diagnosed by multiple doctors with an outcome of no favorable reversibility.

Mohammad Ashraf

Winnipeg, Canada

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