Are We Allowed to End Someone’s Life in Order to Avoid Suffering?

Roxana Stanciu
March 20, 2017

  Roxana Stanciu

In September 2016, a minor was intentionally killed in Belgium. This was the first time such a case had been reported. According to the Belgian press, the minor was 17 years old, had an incurable disease, and was suffering “unbearable physical pain”. Though unprecedented, the road to child euthanasia in the country had already been paved years earlier. But are we allowed to intentionally end someone’s life in order to avoid suffering? 

In 2002, Belgium became the second country in the world – after the Netherlands – to legalize euthanasia. At the time, the statute extended only to people 18 or older. Then in 2014, Belgium voted to extend euthanasia to children as well. The new law allowed minors to seek euthanasia under certain conditions – as long they “possess the capacity of discernment”. Parental consent is also required.

While in the Netherlands euthanasia is allowed for children as young as 12, Belgium was the first country in the world to lift all age restrictions on the practice. And the question whether a small child can really understand the gravity of such a decision has been entirely ignored.

But there is a grave contradiction between such cases and the resolution adopted in January 2012 by the the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which clearly stated that “[e]uthanasia, in the sense of the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit, must always be prohibited.”

Moreover, an earlier Council of Europe Recommendation to Member States in 2003 emphasized the fact that “all people near the end of life desire to be treated as valued persons by health care professionals and to have skilled attention directed at maintaining dignity and fostering independence, relieving symptoms and maximizing comfort”.

 

The situation in other European countries

According to Dr. John Wyatt of University College London, euthanasia is defined as an intervention undertaken with the intention of ending a life that is thought not to be worth living.  Assisted suicide, in turn, is the deliberate assistance by a physician in the suicide of a patient who intends to end his life.

At the moment, there are five countries in Europe which have legalized either euthanasia or assisted suicide, or both. The Netherlands and Luxembourg allow both euthanasia and assisted suicide; in Belgium, both are practised under the name of “euthanasia”; and in Switzerland and Germany, only assisted suicide is allowed.

There has been pressure from certain interest groups to change the laws in other countries as well.  Fortunately, such legislative efforts have been unsuccessful. In Scotland, an ‘End of Life Assistance Bill’, which would have legalized both euthanasia and assisted suicide, suffered an overwhelming defeat in 2010. The French Senate in 2011 rejected a similar proposal to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, after France’s prime minister at the time, François Fillon, spoke out strongly against the proposal. In Britain, the ‘Assisted Dying Bill’ tabled by MP Rob Marris – which was the eleventh attempt in twelve years to legalise assisted suicide through Parliament – was overwhelmingly defeated in September 2015.

Despite these positives outcomes, there are a lot of concerns about the continuing presence of a ‘culture of death’ across Europe. According to the bi-annual report published by the Euthanasia Control Commission in Belgium in October, there were 2,022 intentional killings in 2015, a record for the country. “The seventh report on euthanasia in Belgium shows that once we open the doors to intentional killing, there is no logical stopping point. While there were 24 euthanasia cases in 2002, this number has now increased almost a hundredfold. The slippery slope that Belgium embarked on in 2002 is becoming more and more visible. Today, euthanasia for a person who is perfectly healthy in a physical sense, but suffers from psychological illnesses, is accepted in Belgium,” said Sophia Kuby, Director of EU Advocacy for ADF International.

A 2014 Dutch Euthanasia Report indicated that there were 5,306 cases reported, up from 4,829 in 2013. In addition, it indicated that 4% of the total number of deaths in the Netherlands are the result of euthanasia.

 

Alternatives & WHO recommendations

Suffering – particularly the struggle towards the end of one’s life – is something which many people naturally fear. It can be intensely painful for both the sufferer and the surrounding loved ones who feel powerless to act. But there is a real, life-affirming alternative to euthanasia and assisted suicide – which is to provide effective pain treatment together with loving, competent care for the disabled or dying person. Such ‘palliative’ care allows people to die with dignity without taking one’s own or another’s life.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines palliative care as “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychological and spiritual”.

In 1990, a WHO Expert Committee found that the greatest improvements in quality of life for cancer patients and their families result from implementation of existing knowledge about pain and symptom management. The Committee concluded that “with the development of modern methods of palliative care, legalization of euthanasia is unnecessary”. It went on to state that a “practical alternative to death in pain exists” and called for “concentrated efforts to implement programs of palliative care, rather than yielding to pressure for legal euthanasia”.

 

A slippery slope

Today arguments in favour of the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide are no longer just focused on the elimination of unbearable suffering. Instead, there is an ongoing attempt to change the phenomenon of dying – from something that simply happens to all of us, and which is fundamentally not in our control (in terms of timing), to something that is planned and carried out on our own terms. Combined with fears about the social and economic burden of having growing numbers of elderly and dependent individuals, the temptation to have full control over one’s own life – including one’s own death – becomes quite irresistible.

When a society starts to have this mind-set, it distorts the way people view not only death but also life and its very purpose. Suffering is no longer seen as having any sort of meaning or purpose, and its complete and total elimination from our lives ends up being seen as entirely beneficial. This, of course, ends up justifying all sorts of interventions – from the taking of one’s own life to the taking of another person’s life at his request.

By making euthanasia and assisted suicide easily available, a very clear message is sent to society: that it is better to be dead than sick or disabled. This is the very top of a slippery slope that may eventually lead to involuntary euthanasia of people considered ‘undesirable’, ‘too expensive’, or ‘a burden on society’. Thus, in the name of eliminating suffering we see that the sufferer is himself eliminated.

What if we started asking ourselves how we can actually help people protect the intrinsic value of each human life and affirm the dignity of every human being – rather than asking how we can help them die sooner? That would be a valuable step towards the establishment of a truly humane society.