The Right to Die: Dying with Dignity or a Danger to Public Health?

 
 

With many wishing for the right to die with dignity, Elizabeth Wells, looks at the reasons for and the issues surrounding euthanasia.

 

 

When Michael Nugent’s wife, Anne Holiday, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, doctors gave her six months to live. As Holiday had seen both of her parents experience long, painful deaths at the hand of cancer, she quickly decided she did not want to share the same fate.

“The only thing that was really stressing her was the concern about having to go through unnecessary suffering,” said Nugent. “She didn’t want to go through that so she wanted to make preparations to take her own life if she needed to.”

This revelation led the couple to Tom Curran and Marie Fleming, who were in a similar situation. Fleming had multiple sclerosis and also wanted to be able to end her own life. Fleming’s situation differed from Holiday’s in that due to her illness, Fleming was actually physically incapable of taking her own life and would therefore need assistance.

While suicide has been effectively legal in Ireland since 1993, assisted suicide and euthanasia are treated as either manslaughter or murder and are punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Seeking to change this, Nugent and Curran formed the Right to Die campaign in 2013. Nugent said the campaign has two main objectives.

“As Right to Die Ireland, we are campaigning for the right for seriously ill people to get the best medical resources if they want to stay alive for as long as they can, and the second is the right of terminally or seriously ill people to have the right to die peacefully when they choose if they want to,” Nugent explained.

Holiday ended up dying a year and half after her diagnosis from natural causes. Fleming, however, fought to face death on her own terms. She and Curran brought a case before the Supreme Court in April 2013 to secure a lawfully assisted suicide, a right Fleming argued should be granted to her under the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The Court ruled that the Irish constitution secured no such rights. However, the Court said the judgement did not prohibit the state legislature from introducing such laws as long as the “appropriate safeguards” were put in place.

The effectiveness of such safeguards has been highly debated in countries where euthanasia is legal, including Belgium and the Netherlands, and some fear what the ripple effects of passing such a law would have on public safety and ethical medical care.

“The Court said the judgement did not prohibit the state legislature from introducing such laws as long as the “appropriate safeguards” were put in place.”

According to a report published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the rate of euthanasia/assisted suicides in Belgium has increased from 0.2% since the inception of the law in 2003 to 1.7% of all deaths in 2013. An article published in Current Oncology presents the argument of a “social slippery slope,” in which safeguards become more and more relaxed over time allowing for higher rates of euthanasia. In the Netherlands, for example, when the law was first constructed in 2001 it was to be reserved only for people with terminal illnesses with no other options when euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Now, anyone over the age of 70 who is “tired of living” may be considered for euthanasia, the article stated.

Furthermore, the article reported that more than 500 people are involuntarily euthanized in the Netherlands each year. The article defined involuntary euthanasia as “a situation in which a person possesses the capacity but has not provided consent.”

“They haven’t worked in Belgium, they haven’t worked in the Netherlands, why would they work here?” said David Quinn, religious and social affairs commentator for the Iona Institute and spokesperson for the Christian Advocacy Group.

Nugent said concerns about safeguards are often not grounded in facts and even if they were, it is not enough reason to deny someone the right to end their own life. To him, it boils down to a matter of respecting an individual’s personal choice to “die with dignity.”

“It boils down to a matter of respecting an individual’s personal choice to “die with dignity.”

“Ultimately, it’s that your life is your own, it’s not anybody else’s and just as you shouldn’t be forced to die, you shouldn’t be forced to stay alive if you have decided you want to die.”

Quinn argues that because of the knock-on effects legalizing euthanasia can have on society, euthanasia and assisted suicide must be treated as a public act, and warns against suicide taking on “a normative kind of character.”

“It creates a new norm around dying and suffering,” he said. “And the norm is that assisted suicide is the way out of this. And I just think a compassionate society has to offer something other than assisted suicide to people in extreme distress.” He suggested that there are alternatives to euthanasia, saying “We’ve got to offer something better than suicide. You’ve got for example palliative care.”

Currently, no such bill for Ireland to legalize euthanasia or assisted suicide is being examined by the Oireachtas.

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