LONDON, JUNE 7, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Euthanasia came up for debate Friday in the UK House of Lords, in the form of a private member’s bill introduced by Lord Joffe. The bill seeks to allow assisted suicide, not only for those in conditions of “unbearable suffering.” Any decision by the Lords on the matter will have to receive approval by the House of Commons.
A recent poll showed that nearly three-quarters of doctors would refuse to perform assisted suicide if it were legalized, the Telegraph reported May 13. The survey of nearly 1,000 doctors by the group Right to Life also revealed that a majority of those questioned considered it impossible to set safe limits for euthanasia.
In past months a number of British citizens have committed suicide at a clinic in Zurich, Switzerland, operated by the group Dignitas. Dignitas specializes in the assisted deaths of non-Swiss nationals, charging a 45-pound ($73) registration fee and an annual fee of about 25 pounds.
In April a married couple put an end to their lives. Bob Stokes suffered from bad epilepsy and his wife suffered from multiple sclerosis, according to an April 17 report in the Telegraph. Dr. Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the British Medical Association, expressed concern that a couple could die with such ease while suffering from illnesses that did not need to make their lives unbearable.
Last month another Briton, John Close, who suffered from motor neurone disease, committed suicide at the Dignitas clinic. A number of criticisms have been raised over the operation of the center in past months and it is now under investigation by the public prosecutor’s office in Zurich, BBC reported May 27.
Go-ahead for starving
In Australia, the Supreme Court in the state of Victoria ruled that keeping patients alive by tube-feeding is a medical treatment and not palliative care, The Australian newspaper reported May 30. Justice Stuart Morris ruled that the guardian of a 68-year-old Melbourne woman — who is suffering dementia and has spent the past three years in a so-called vegetative state — could stop the tube-feeding that has kept her alive for eight years. This is the first time an Australian court had deliberated on whether artificial tube-feeding could be withdrawn.
Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart declared that the decision had “very serious implications,” the Age newspaper reported May 31. “To regard tube-feeding as an optional medical treatment which can be removed at the direction of a guardian potentially affects all the elderly, handicapped and unconscious who rely upon such assistance,” the Catholic archbishop said.
In a May 14 opinion article in the Age, the archbishop explained that the Catholic Church rejects two extremes. First, the attitude of “feed people up, no matter what” and second, the attitude that “they’re better off dead, so why continue feeding?”
Therapeutically futile or overly burdensome treatments should not be used, nor should attempts be made to keep people alive forever with artificial life-support, the archbishop explained. On the other hand, he pointed out, good medical and nursing ethics have always insisted that we may never deliberately hasten death. “We all know that can be done by withholding basic needs, as easily as by giving them poison,” he wrote.
Melbourne’s archbishop also explained that the Code of Ethics for Catholic Health and Aged Care Services in Australia declares, “Nutrition and hydration should always be provided to patients unless they cannot be assimilated by a person’s body, they do not sustain life, or their only mode of delivery imposes grave burdens on the patient or others.”
The Supreme Court ruling was on a decision by a lower tribunal in Victoria to approve the withdrawal of the feeding tube. That lower-court ruling had come under criticism from ethicist Dr. Nicholas Tonti-Filippini. He accused the tribunal of misunderstanding the Medical Treatment Act, the Age reported March 2.
Tonti-Filippini said Parliament had decided the reasonable provision of nutrition and hydration was not medical treatment, and could not be refused under that act. “What they are deciding is to end the woman’s life by starving her to death,” he said. It would “seem to be reasonable to continue feeding unless there was some kind of problem with the delivery of the feeding.”
Underreporting of cases
In the Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal, concerns continue over its practice. A study shows that in 2001 only just over half of doctors fulfilled their legal responsibility to report their actions concerning euthanasia, the British Medical Journal reported May 31.
The study, commissioned by the Dutch government, found that since 1996 reporting of cases of euthanasia cases increased to 54% of cases from 41%. Researchers estimated that 3,500 cases of euthanasia occurred in 2001 — about 2.5% of all deaths. This compares with 3,200 (2.4%) in 1995. The number of cases where a doctor ended a patient’s life without an explicit request, which have caused controversy in the past, remained the same, around 900.
In Hungary, meanwhile, the Constitutional Court rejected a petition to legalize euthanasia, Agence-France Presse reported April 28. Since 1997, Hungary has allowed a passive form of euthanasia, in which patients can refuse treatments that would extend their life.
Court president Janos Nemeth said: “We have considered international examples and euthanasia has only been made legal recently in Belgium, in the Netherlands and in a state in the United States.”
Palliative care the key
Critics of euthanasia frequently point out what terminally ill patients most need is adequate care. This was confirmed by Dr. Romayne Gallagher, director of the palliative care division within the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine, the Vancouver Sun reported Feb. 24.
At a palliative care conference in Vancouver, Gallagher explained that too many dying people don’t know what can be done to ease their suffering. Gallagher said the problem comes from uninformed consumers, a shortage of money in the health-care system and the reluctance of traditionally trained doctors to help their patients deal with death.
The lack of attention was confirmed by a recent Italian study. It found that 1 of every 10 gravely ill patients does not receive any treatment to alleviate pain, the newspaper La Stampa reported May 24. The information came from a survey of 15,000 patients by the Gigi Ghirotti Foundation.
Many of those surveyed also expressed dissatisfaction over the level of treatment received for their suffering — 24% declared they were suffering intensely, and another 42%, moderately. Overall, 62% said they wanted to feel less pain.
Commenting on the matter, Italian Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia said it is a sign of civilization for a society to give relief to those who are ill, especially those in a critical state. Sirchia declared his support for a greater attention to palliative care, and repeated his opposition to euthanasia.
The first and foundational human right is the right to life, and the first duty of the state is to protect that right by safeguarding the lives of its citizens, stated Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff in an open letter May 25 on behalf of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
Legalizing euthanasia or assisted suicide not only breaches this duty, but also would radically undermine the moral and legal basis of society, the archbishop said. “From a Christian perspective it directly contravenes the Gospel imperative to love and care for our neighbor,” he stated. Words that parliaments and courts would do well to keep in mind.