Euthanasia is a tricky and emotive subject, for obvious reasons – it’s not an easy subject with clearly defined lines of demarcation. Nonetheless, it is a political issue – especially so this week following the BBC documentary, Choosing to Die, in which author and Alzheimer’s sufferer Sir Terry Pratchett visits the Dignitas euthanasia clinic in Switzerland. The issue was also raised on Question Time as well.
It seems only right that a “right to life” must have a qualitative meaning where ‘life’ means more than biologically functioning. In that sense I think the question of whether of people have a “right to die” is a false one and those who support euthanasia should stop framing the debate this way. This isn’t about death. Death is incidental to the main issue which is the patient’s quality of life. If that is so compromised that death is the only way to seriously ameliorate suffering it’s hard to argue this option should not be available. Similarly this shows that the allowance of euthanasia is not an imposition on the commitment of the medical profession to ‘do no harm’. Realistically, doing no harm in some contexts means the final curtailment of suffering.
Legitimate concerns exist about the potential for the system to be abused and for pressure to be applied to, for example, disabled people to take this route. Furthermore, the argument goes that this will become a route which the mentally ill and suicidal will take. <P>Obviously, if euthanasia were legalised then stringent safeguards would need to be in place to ensure that it was only accessed by those it is intended to help. Yes, this would not be without risks but is there any system in the world that is infallible? Currently, euthanasia is practised ‘under the radar’ and this heightens the danger that vulnerable groups are placed in – legalisation would actually give greater protection by providing a clear legislative framework to protect people – a framework would also end the criminalisation of innocents.
This is, however, an issue where real political courage needs to be shown. Even the BBC’s decision to air the Pratchett documentary attracted heavy criticism and a frankly censorious attitude from many quarters.
Opponents of euthanasia cannot rely on ending the debate before it has started; they must prove that the risks of legalising euthanasia outweigh those of allowing it to continue below the radar. And they must show that the continued illegality of euthanasia does not adversely impact upon certain people’s right to a life where everything is done to minimise their suffering.