“I want to have a quick death without suffering, at home surrounded by my family.” This was the final wish of Diane Pretty, a woman who suffered from motor neurone disease and had her request to be euthanised denied by British courts. According to her husband Brian Pretty, she “endured breathing difficulties, pain and distress” in her final hours before dying on 11 May 2002. Ten years later, the euthanasia debate continues.

On 10 April this year, The New Zealand Herald reported that a man in Auckland had been charged of assisting his terminally ill wife in her quest to commit suicide. With the debate about euthanasia currently raging in Canada, Perdeby investigates these “mercy killings”.

Euthanasia is the practice of deliberately ending a terminally ill person’s life in order to free them from suffering. It is performed by taking drugs orally, through an intra-muscular injection or intravenously – the latter being the fastest and most reliable method. Some euthanasia machines make use of oxygen deprivation to end the life of the patient.

Although illegal in most countries, voluntary euthanasia is allowed in Luxembourg, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and the US states of Washington and Oregon. Non-voluntary euthanasia (when a patient, for example, is in a coma and no explicit consent can be given) and involuntary euthanasia (when a patient is able to give explicit consent but does not) are both illegal worldwide, with the latter generally being considered murder.

The type of euthanasia which has caused the biggest stir among medical professionals for years is that of voluntary euthanasia, also known as physician-assisted suicide (PAS). According to The Vancouver Sun, the issue of legalisation of this practice in Canada was debated earlier this month. “I think as a society we are too scared of death. We need to see death as a part of the cycle of life and not go to extraordinary lengths (and expenses) to preserve life when death is the kinder option,” says Wanda Morris, the executive director of the organisation Dying with Dignity.

Morris, among other supporters of the practice, argues that the patient’s freedom of choice to undergo euthanasia should remain a top priority, especially in countries that consider themselves liberal democracies.

Another issue which should be deliberated is the patient’s quality of life. Proponents of euthanasia maintain that the value people place on life is linked to their quality of life – chronically ill patients who lose their independence endure emotional pain on top of large amount of physical pain. Economically, it is also expensive to live with a terminal disease when patients continually have to spend money on medication.

Lochan Bakshi, an 87-year-old Canadian man suffering from type 2 diabetes and impending kidney failure, would like the choice of euthanasia. “I absolutely believe that God does not want you to be miserable and, if that is so, why do we keep hanging on to the little thread of life at the very end?” Bakshi says.

Religious and moral grounds have often been cited as the main reasons for the banning of euthanasia. In most religious denominations, suicide is considered a sin. Despite this, Colombia, a country known for its large Roman Catholic following, has allowed the practice of euthanasia since May 1997. According to MSNBC, although euthanasia is legal, the country has no set guidelines for medical professionals on how the practice should be performed.

It is also argued that euthanasia can only be truly considered “voluntary” if patients are mentally capable of making the decision to end their life. According to The Gazette, a 2005 study from the Netherlands (published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology) found that people suffering from depression were four times more likely to consider euthanasia. Similarly, a study approved by the Dutch Ministry of Health, the Dutch Ministry of Justice and the Royal Dutch Medical Association found that 32% of PAS cases had complications. These included the time for patients to die being longer than expected, problems with administering the necessary drugs and the development of physical symptoms.

As maintained by The Vancouver Sun, this month marks ten years since euthanasia was legalised in the Netherlands and Belgium. In one year alone, approximately 4 000 people are provided with assisted suicide in these countries. On the other hand, as Willem Landman of the NGO Dignity South Africa states, “South Africa is struggling with the debate over legalising euthanasia.” He believes that this is due to the underdeveloped health care systems that plague the country. Landman argues that the majority of South African doctors would be willing to practise euthanasia if it were legal, especially because withholding life support is already a medical practice in the country. He maintains that because there are not enough doctors in South Africa, “[legalising] euthanasia [here] would be premature and difficult to put into practice.”

Proponents of the practice contend that legalisation would have numerous benefits for the medical industry. Doctors could spend their time and energy focusing on the people whose lives could be saved instead of wasting their time on those who would like to end theirs.

Whether euthanasia goes against the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors or if it allows freedom of choice to be exercised by those in doctors’ care, it is certain that this controversial issue will be contemplated for years to come.

Photo: Charné Fourie

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