Should euthanasia be legalised?

The question on my lips, this week is this: should euthanasia – described by the dictionary as an easy or painless death – be legalised? A recent study of 300 GPs revealed that one in seven admitted to helping patients die at their request. This indicates that hundreds, probably thousands, of patients die each year with the help of doctors at home and in hospitals. Many GPs, although they did not admit to helping patients die, confessed that they believed it would be right for doctors to be given the legal power of death.

The commonest way doctors hasten death is by injecting large doses diamorphine, another name for heroin. The ostensible and entirely legal purpose is to alleviate pain. But the result at high doses, can also be death. The patient does not die immediately but slips into unconsciousness and passes away within hours as the drug suppresses breathing. Diamorphine is widely reported by doctors as being “the most delightful and delicious way to die”.

So should euthanasia be decreed legal? In many ways I am for legalising euthanasia. After all, who wants to be left lingering in agony? There is, in my mind, no way that any human being should have to suffer, when death is inevitable. Why delay the inevitable? This question was taken up in one of my favourite episodes of ER (the popular American hospital drama which pulled in an average of 35 million viewers during its 15 year run). A young boy faced death. Death was not a probability, it was a certainty. The time scale was not years, months, weeks or days. The young boy in question had only hours left to live and his Mother sat watching and waiting for him to die. He was suffering, she was suffering and, at the mother’s insistence, Doctor Ross ended the boy’s life. As in all soap dramas, Doctor Ross got caught in a ruthless and relentless investigation. Doctor Ross said to his one lone supporter: “Do you think I did it? Do you think I killed him?” The supporter replied: “I hope you did. No one deserves to suffer like that boy was suffering.”

In circumstances such as this, what is wrong with speeding things up a little, so to speak? A vet is allowed to put animals to sleep to relieve their pain, so why can’t doctors? Try humans are not animals, but surely the principle remains the same? I know that if it were me staring death in the face and I was in excruciating, unbearable pain, I would want someone to end my life. What good would I be to anyone, and what reason would I have to stay alive for?

The pressure for a change to the strict illegality of euthanasia is growing. Euthanaisa has its supporters. Television presenter Jeremy Beadle has admitted helping a friend to die and said that he felt no guilt. On the contrary: he had a clear conscience. Zoe Wannamaker, the actress, has also spoken out in favour of euthanasia, She considered helping her Father to die, but in the end took no action.

Those opposed to legalising euthanasia would argue: but what if patients do have a chance of full recovery, however slim? The solution and only practical approach here is to address the merits of each individual case. If death is not one hundred percent inevitable, then euthanasia should not be carried out. It really is as simple as that.

However there are many reasons not to legalise euthanasia. In countries that have tried to legislate on people’s rights to die, the results have not been positive. Since 1993, doctors in Holland have been able to stop the suffering of terminally ill patients and end their lives with or without their consent. Each year 25,000 plus Dutch people die this way. Apparently, according to a Dutch friend of mine, many Dutch people now carry anti euthanasia cards because they are concerned that if they fall ill they will be killed by off by overzealous doctors. Similarly in Northern Territory Australia, a law to enable the terminally ill to have legal assistance in committing suicide was soon overturned.

If we were to legalise euthanasia, would we not be attempting to play god by deciding to end peoples’ lives? Surely death should be left to nature? In her gothic novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley shows what happens to a man who attempts to usurp the role of God. Victor’s sin is his attempt to usurp the role of God in creating life and for this he pays the ultimate price. Shelley provides a frighteningly believable prediction of what the future might hold in a world where it is man, and no longer God who holds the secret of life. Surely none of us has the right to play God in taking a life?

The British Medical Association remains opposed to any change in the law on euthanasia and doctor assisted suicide. Perhaps, we should say for good reason. The dangers of unbridled euthanasia are all too easy to imagine. In an extraordinary account of falling into a coma after an accident, Joan Smith once described to the media how she was completely paralyse d but could hear everything happening around her. Smith, who was put on a respirator, was shocked when she heard her husband tell doctors that she would not have wanted to live in such circumstances and they should switch off the respirator. Joan reportedly said:  “My husband was issuing my death sentence – I wanted to scream, but was unable to move.” Thanks only to the persistence of her daughter, her treatment was continue and she eventually made a full recovery.

Illegal or legal, immoral or moral, the fact remains that euthanasia is carried out. When a patient says to her doctor in confidence “Will you help me die?” many doctors carry out their patients wishes, regardless of the fact that in this country at least, they are breaking the law. Do we need to legalise euthanasia if it is already in practice?  In a recent study, one doctor revealed how a patient said to him:  “I don’t know you very well, but I trust you. I am going to die soon. I know it, my family know it and my children know it. I think you know what to do.”

And do, the doctor did. However the question remains: Can there ever be a time to kill?