Right to die or right to kill – that is the question


By Dr. M. Haris Z Deen

The question of the right to be put to death of terminally ill people in order to end their suffering has once again surfaced with the advent of 2017. The UK Guardian and BBC have reported the case of "motor neurone" sufferer Noel Conway launching a legal challenge for the right to die. The same story was carried in the Shropshire Star and other leading UK media. There are many such terminal sufferers who have challenged the authorities several times previously to be granted the right to die. This has also been debated in the UK parliament several times. British Members of Parliament rejected a Bill to allow assisted "killing" presented in parliament in the year 2015.

The cases of people suffering from terminal illnesses are not new. Such people have been cared for and given the opportunity to live their full quota of life. What is being demanded is a right to be killed. If the person is able to do to it him or herself then it will be suicide.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are two different things. Euthanasia is the act of deliberately ending a person’s life to relieve suffering. As an example, a doctor who gives his patient with terminal cancer an overdose of muscle relaxants to end their life would be considered to have carried out euthanasia.

As opposed to this, assisted suicide is the act of deliberately assisting or encouraging another person to kill themselves. For example, if a relative of a person with a terminal illness were to obtain powerful sedatives, knowing that the person intended to take an overdose of sedatives to kill themselves, they may be considered to be assisting suicide.

Both active euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal under English law.

Depending on the circumstances, euthanasia is regarded as either manslaughter or murder and is punishable by law, with a maximum penalty of up to life imprisonment. 

Assisted suicide is illegal under the terms of the Suicide Act (1961) and is punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment. Attempting to kill yourself is not a criminal act in itself. 

Legal Issues – the right to life

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood". The spirit of brotherhood intended by this article does not extend to committing euthanasia or assisting people to die as confirmed in Article 3 which states that "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person". As the right to life is enshrined in the UDHR committing Euthanasia or assisting people to die will amount to committing an act against the UDHR Article 5 which states that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". Without some torture, or being cruel it will be impossible to "kill" a person in whatever health state he or she might be.

Similarly, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) asserts in Article 2 the right to life thus:

1. Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his law intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.

2. Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this Article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary:

(a) In defence of any person from unlawful violence;

(b) In order to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained;

(c) In action lawfully taken for the purpose of quelling a riot or insurrection

The ECHR itself has defined in the above Article the events upon which killing will be considered legal. Assisting a person to die, commit suicide or Euthanasia do not come within this definition. Therefore, as the law stands in the UK people cannot be "put down" because they are terminally ill or are a burden on society.

Moral, ethical and religious issues

Doctors before engaging in their role as physicians and don their white coats are supposed to take the "Hippocratic" oath which has several variations as presently administered. Nevertheless, all the versions express the need "not to give up on patients". One senior doctor told me that "if there is just one percent chance of recovery, we need to do all we can for the patient against taking the easier way out to administer anything like euthanasia however desirable it might be. It will be against all moral and ethical values upon which a doctor’s oath is given. Therefore, assisting a patient to commit suicide however terminal his or her illness is out of the question".

As far as religions are concerned all religions believe that "life is a gift from God, and each individual is its steward. Hence, only God can start a life, and only God should be allowed to end one. God does not send us any experience that we cannot endure. God supports people in suffering. To actively seek an end to one’s life would represent a lack of trust in God’s promise.

Many faith groups within Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other religions sincerely believe that God gives life and therefore only God should take it away. Suicide would then be considered as a rejection of God’s sovereignty and loving plan. This is an important belief for members of these religious groups and choosing suicide including physician assisted suicide is out of the question for these people. Against this large majority of faith objectors there are also liberal thinkers who promote Euthanasia and assisted suicide as a morally desirable option.

Many faith groups believe that human suffering can have a positive value for terminally ill persons and for carers. For them suffering can be a divinely appointed opportunity for learning or purification. Similarly, there are many groups that believe that pain experienced by terminally ill people can be controlled through tolerable levels through proper health management.

By making physician assisted suicide available some people will be pressured into accepting assistance in dying by their families. This pressure may sometimes occur in subtle forms. This is an important argument in favour of strict controls that would confirm that the potential for interference is so serious that all assisted suicide should be banned.

Life is a valuable "commodity" for everyone. In 1989 this same debate took place and a survey conducted during that time found that most of the terminally ill or disabled persons interviewed preferred to be left alone as they are. One disabled youngster from Prudoe in Tyne and Wear, who had both legs and arms completely dysfunctional was heard on television by more than a million viewers to says that he was "thankful to God" for having saved his eyes so that he can see where he was going despite his disability. It therefore shows that it is dangerous to decide the fate of the number of terminally ill people who have faith in God by the request of a few. The courts, judges and the British lawmakers, have, while sympathising with these terminal sufferers, hitherto very wisely declined to accede to these requests.

The Danger

There is great danger not only to terminally ill persons, but to other disabled people and many elderly people under care most of who are unable to decide for themselves, being vulnerable and subject to being "harassed" into acceptance of the "easy way out" – by being put to death, not for the benefit of the victim but for other reasons amongst them consideration of financial benefits. There is though the practice of medically assisted "suicide" legally allowed in Switzerland. But very strict controls and procedures to ensure that the terminal sufferer is fully aware of what he or she is requesting and it is not done under pressure from family or carers have been put in place. However strict the controls are, what is the guarantee that the patient is in a fit mental state to decide what is right for him?

Life is preciousand let us make efforts to preserve it.

Email: deenmohamed835@gmail.com

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