Euthanasia is a difficult and contentious subject to deal with as there are strong opinions on both sides of the argument but it is a crucial issue for many with one of a number of chronic illnesses.
There are those who campaign for the right to die with dignity while others talk about the value of life.
Debbie Purdy, who had primary progressive multiple sclerosis, became well-known in the UK for her right to die campaign. She even won a court ruling to clarify the law on assisted suicide. She died in December 2014, aged 51.
Former comedy actor Brian Rix became president of Mencap learning disability charity and opposed euthanasia for many years. As Lord Rix, in the UK parliament’s upper house, the House of Lords, he voted against changing the law. However, he later changed his mind when he became terminally ill.
Shortly before he died last month, 92-year-old Rix said the law on assisted dying needed changing and wrote to urge the Lord Speaker1, who presides over the House of Lords, to push through legislation allowing those in his situation to be assisted to die.
He said his illness has left him “like a beached whale” and in constant discomfort.
In his letter, Rix wrote: “My position has changed. As a dying man, who has been dying now for several weeks, I am only too conscious that the laws of this country make it impossible for people like me to be helped on their way, even though the family is supportive of this position and everything that needs to be done has been dealt with.
“Unhappily, my body seems to be constructed in such a way that it keeps me alive in great discomfort when all I want is to be allowed to slip into a sleep, peacefully, legally and without any threat to the medical or nursing profession.
“I am sure there are many others like me who having finished with life wish their life to finish.
“Only with a legal euthanasia Bill on the statute books will the many people who find themselves in the same situation as me be able to slip away peacefully in their sleep instead of dreading the night.”
I find that letter touching but it is only one side of the argument. There is a worldwide network of groups campaigning against euthanasia and, for the moment, they seem to have the upper hand in most countries.
What may concern many, though, is that news has just broken that a terminally ill minor has been helped to die in Belgium for the first time since the country did away with age restrictions on euthanasia two years ago.
Liberal Senator Jean-Jacques De Gucht who wrote the law, said the minor was from the country’s Flemish region, but refused to provide any other details in order to protect the privacy of the grieving family.
Since the change in its law, Belgium is the only country that allows minors of any age to have assistance in dying. In the Netherlands, the lower age limit for euthanasia is 12 years.
In Belgium there are strict rules for euthanasia to be approved. The minor has to be in the final stages of a terminal illness, to understand the difference between life and death rationally and to have asked to end his or her life on repeated occasions. It also needs parental consent as well as approval of two doctors, one of which must be a psychiatrist.
Human euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Canada, and in the US states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Montana, and California.
Do so many places represent a breakthrough or the thin end of the wedge? Is it good or bad? For me this is a question of health and personal conscience. It should not be a subject for moral or religious debate.
Each individual decision should be a private matter, not one for public debate or protests.
¹ Baroness D’Souza, who received Lord Rix’s letter, was succeeded as Lord Speaker by Lord Fowler on September 1.