Euthanasia is an extremely difficult subject to write about mainly because it entails expressing oneself on something that is so very personal, emotional and distressing to a person who is terminally ill and suffering continuously from severe pain. Those around him or her, mostly the near family and friends, are also caught in the tragic drama.
For a detached person it is easy to be dogmatic and judgemental even quoting learned sources to argue for or against the practice. For those directly involved, however, it is a deep and harrowing experience that could be lasting; others are mere uninvited intruders.
The legalising of euthanasia is now attracting interest and gaining supporters around the world. It has, so far, been introduced in at least six important and highly civilised countries, namely The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Colombia, Luxembourg and Canada. Given this situation, it needs to be discussed dispassionately and intelligently.
In Malta, the debate is also slowly gaining ground. Although politicians on all sides have so far failed to declare their firm positions on the subject, it can happen (based on recent experiences on other equally divisive issues) that after the next elections the matter would suddenly flare up and a decision taken on behalf of a bewildered and unprepared public on half-baked assumptions. This ought to be avoided at all costs since the subject is too serious and complicated to be decided in such cavalier manner.
Once euthanasia becomes accepted in society its ramifications are unknown and without limit
In the Book of Job (Job: 2:9-10) his wife entreats him as she sees him suffering from the ailments that have long assailed him: “Curse God and die!”
He turns towards her and after calling her “foolish woman”, he tells her most emphatically: “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” To the Christian (and those in many other religions) euthanasia, under whatever form and guise, is equated with intentional killing that is contradictory to God’s will.
God is the giver of life and one would be simply usurping that authority were one to take life in one’s own hands.
On one side of the debate there is the story of men of great eminence who have undergone the traumatic journey of extreme pain and who changed their opinion in the face of such physical and internal turbulence. Two well-known public figures are recent examples – Lord Rix in the UK and Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, both highly well-suited to speak on the subject with great moral authority.
Brian Rix, Lord Rix, who died on August 20 of this year at the age of 92 was a comic actor of great talent renowned for his originality and versatility. His first child, Shelley, was born with Down Syndrome and this changed the direction of his life. He became an active campaigner for people with learning disabilities. He was knighted in 1986 and raised to the peerage in 1992 in recognition of his sterling work in this sphere.
Rix was also an active campaigner against euthanasia. In 2006, he voted in the House of Lords against a Bill on assisted dying as he claimed it might be misused in relation to people with learning disabilities who would not be mature and judicious enough to decide on such momentous matters. He was one of the most notable and vociferous opponents of the Bill both in the House and outside it.
In 2016, after months of relentless pain with terminal illness, he wrote to the Speaker of the House of Lords urging that the law on assisted dying be changed “as soon as possible to allow the many people who find themselves in the same situation as I am to slip away peacefully”.
The famous Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate, while celebrating his 85th birthday at St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, on October 7, said that he would like the option of “a dignified assisted death” when the time comes. He has been undergoing cancer treatment for years and has supported initiatives for assisted dying laws in the UK, US, South Africa and elsewhere. He claims that in refusing dying people the right to die with dignity “we fail to demonstrate the compassion that lies at the heart of Christian values”.
The greatest concern of those against euthanasia is that once euthanasia becomes accepted in society its ramifications are unknown and without limit. It could, for example, be used on vulnerable people where the value of their consent remains questionable. The recent news of the death of a child by lethal injection in Belgium is proof enough of where legalised euthanasia can lead.
In the debate on the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 in the Australian House of Representatives, Lindsay Tanner, an MP from Melbourne, encapsulated the primary concerns of those objecting to legalised euthanasia when he said:
“I am troubled by euthanasia because I think it is virtually impossible to draw safe boundaries, because I think it is virtually impossible to prevent abuses and mistakes and because I think it is virtually impossible to justify offering the option of assisted suicide to one category of people and deny it to others.”