Euthanasia Is Back in the Spotlight

Support Is Spotty But Persistent; Two-Thirds of Victims Are Women

BRUSSELS, Belgium, OCT. 27, 2001 ( The battle over euthanasia has heated up in recent days. On Thursday, Belgium´s Senate voted 44-23 to approve a measure in favor of legal euthanasia.

Studies have shown that more than one in 10 deaths among the country´s 10 million people are a result of “informal” euthanasia, where doctors give patients drugs to hasten their deaths, the Guardian newspaper of London reported Oct. 26.

The new law must still be approved by the chamber of deputies, but that is seen as a formality. The vote is expected before year-end. Belgian proponents said they had been helped by the Dutch decision to legalize “mercy killing” earlier this year.

In England, meanwhile, the High Court denied a petition by Diane Pretty, a terminally ill woman, to let her husband help her commit suicide. While three senior judges said they felt “desperately sorry” for Pretty and her husband, they believed their decision was “inescapable,” the Telegraph reported Oct. 19.

Pretty suffers from motor neurone disease, which causes progressive muscle weakening. She wanted a promise from the Director of Public Prosecutions that her husband would not be charged with assisting in her suicide.

During the hearings, her attorney Philip Havers said the right to life included the right to die, and to choose how and when to die.

But the judges insisted that the law in question, Articles 2 and 3 of the Human Rights Convention, were “aimed at the protection and preservation of life, and the dignity of life.” Lord Justice Tuckey, Lady Justice Hale and Justice Silber concluded: “It is to stand the whole purpose of these articles on its head to say that they are aimed at protecting a person´s right to procure their own death.”

After the decision, some pro-life campaigners expressed surprise that Pretty had not been offered the help of the hospice movement, which provides powerful pain-relief and support for the dying.

Bishop Peter Smith of East Anglia and spokesman for the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of England and Wales said: “No one can fail to be moved by the terrible suffering of Diane Pretty and her husband. Motor neurone disease is a terrible terminal illness.”

“The court, however, has rightly upheld the law prohibiting euthanasia and assisted suicide, which is there not least to protect the weak, and especially vulnerable older people,” said Bishop Smith, who was named this week as the new archbishop of Cardiff, Wales. “It is right to alleviate suffering; it is wrong to kill.”

Decision in other countries

The difficulties of legal decisions in this area were made apparent this week when a jury in Western Australia acquitted a doctor and the brother and sister of one of his patients of euthanasia.

Perth urologist Daryl Alan Stephens had been on trial for the lethal-injection death of his terminally ill patient Freeda Patricia Hayes, 48, according to an Oct. 24 report in The Age newspaper of Melbourne. Hayes died in a hospice Feb. 4, 2000, just hours after she had begged another doctor to end her cancer suffering.

The Supreme Court trial was the first time in Australia that a doctor had been charged with a mercy killing.

Ms. Hayes´ sister Lena Dorothy Vinson and brother Warren William Hayes were accused of willful murder for allegedly encouraging and assisting Dr. Stephens to end her suffering.

The case against the three relied on evidence from hospice nurse Diane Grennan, who said she had “barged into” Ms. Hayes´ room to find the trio acting suspiciously and appearing to be engaged in an unauthorized medical procedure.

Crown prosecutor Dave Dempster said Freeda Hayes died of a fast-acting cocktail of drugs that could only have been administered just before the nurse interrupted the trio. The defense argued there was no proof that any of the three had conspired to kill Ms. Hayes.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled last month that the state´s inhabitants have no constitutional right to assisted suicide. According to a Sept. 22 report in the Anchorage Daily News, the court in a unanimous decision upheld a state law that says helping others to kill themselves is manslaughter.

The court cited the state´s long history of opposition to assisted suicide, and the danger that vulnerable Alaskans who are depressed or disabled might be pressured into dying when they don´t really want to.

The court concluded that in an imperfect society the right of the vulnerable to be free from deadly coercion trumps the right of the terminally ill to have help dying.

The state successfully argued that “the terminally ill are a class of persons who need protection from family, social and economic pressures, and who are often particularly vulnerable to such pressures because of chronic pain, depression and the effects of medication,” Justice Alex Bryner wrote in the court´s decision.

Attorney Bob Flint, who argued against assisted suicide for the state´s Catholic Conference, said what the dying really need is good medical care to ease their suffering and “the support and companionship of their neighbors, their family and friends.”

Dangers of mercy killing

The dangers of undue pressure on people to end their lives was recently the subject of an investigation by Colorado State University psychologist Silvia Sara Canetto. According to Scientific American magazine in its Sept. 24 issue, Canetto uncovered a curious statistic: Two-thirds of the people who die in so-called mercy killings are women.

Moreover, most of these women are killed by men. “Many people may view women´s high rates of death by mercy killing as an indication of men´s beneficence or of women´s healthy pragmatism, rational thinking and self-determination,” Canetto says. “Yet one should be wary of those who present mercy killing as a gift to women. These are fatal gifts, embedded in a long tradition of legitimizing women´s sacrifice.”

“If older women are uniquely affected by the legalization of hastened death, then policies presented as ´neutral,´ enhancing self-determination, dignity and choice in death may actually be dangerous to older women,” Canetto observed.

Commenting on the case of Diane Pretty, neurologist Ann Coxon wrote Aug. 26 in the Sunday Times of London: “Ending the lives of people who are not terminal is the thin end of the wedge. … It would be the beginning, not of euthanasia, but of eugenics. Inevitably pressure would be applied to those who wish to continue living, but occupy hospital beds at great expense.”

What is needed is not assisted suicide but better attention to the dying, contends David Kessler, author of “The Needs of Dying,” and the director of palliative care for Citrus Valley Health Care Partners and Hospice in Los Angeles.

Kessler, writing in the Boston Globe, on Aug. 24 argued that the cornerstone of good hospice and palliative care is to diminish pain and that, thanks to modern medicine, pain can be alleviated 99.9% of the time. In school, however, the average medical student or nurse gets fewer than two hours of pain-management education.

That may have to change, as the public looks for reasons to avoid turning to legal euthanasia for long-suffering patients.

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