The Law Surrounding Euthanasia

Opinions surrounding euthanasia seem to have always been polarised and no middle ground has ever been reached. It is after all  a permanent ‘solution’ to life – something that one might consider a burden. In the few cases where euthanasia has been allowed, and in the many cases where it has not, one may observe that the court tends to take an obviously religious and moral approach to the meaning of life and death. They have thus been reluctant in allowing the termination of what is considered a blessing or gift from God.

It has been argued that not having a right to death is an infringement of one’s conventional right to respect one’s private life. The courts have agreed to this in some cases, but they are incredibly mindful of the message that it sends to society. As we delve further into this, we might start by asking ourselves what exactly the meaning of life is. Does it simply mean the ability to breathe and digest food? Or does it further extend to being more purposeful and flourishing?

The sanctity of life is the holiest promise the courts make when deciding against euthanasia. There is an emphasis on how the society and the judiciary should endorse the maintenance and prolongation of life as much as we and science can. Not only is this to preserve the aforementioned God’s gift, but it also is to protect the vulnerable from potential abuse. The case of Pretty v United Kingdom saw the claimant wishing to relax section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 to prevent the criminal liability of those assisting in suicide. Suffering from a disease which prevented her from committing suicide herself, she was hoping her husband would assist in procuring death without him being criminally convicted under the aforementioned section 2. When that request was ruled out by the courts, she argued that the decision was in contravention with Articles 2, 3, 8, 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Article 2 of the ECHRRight to life
Article 3 of the ECHRProhibition of torture
Article 8 of the ECHRRight to respect for private and family life
Article 9 of the ECHRFreedom of thought, conscience and religion
Article 14 of the ECHRProhibition of discrimination

In the case mentioned, the European Court of Human Rights concluded that there was no violation of any of these Articles in denying the right to die to the applicant. They went on to explain that the aim of Article 2 is to prevent unlawful killing, that that of Article 3 is to prevent States from resorting to torturous means, that a belief held under Article 9 cannot render a law void and that the exertion of Article 14 can only be in relation with another conventional right. Therefore, if the Court decided that none of her rights had been violated, there was no way an infringement of her claim to Article 14 could be found. 

The question that proved to make a difference in cases was whether section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 violated one’s conventional right of respect to one’s private and family life (Article 8). The European Court maintained that one’s right under Article 8 depends on the way one’s life is conducted, not on how one decides to depart from it. The Strasbourg court in this case stood with the national courts in their stance for the sanctity of life, and the dignity and freedom that it offers. The applicant in this case was not even deemed vulnerable. She was merely frightened of the future pain and wanted to escape any possible suffering that her disease would progress to inflict on her. It was ruled that denying her the right to commit suicide legally would not be disproportionate, especially with respect to Article 8(2) which aims for the best “interests of public safety”. The courts stressed upon how allowing someone who is not deemed vulnerable to commit suicide would send the wrong message to society, particularly to the “weak and vulnerable”. 

The British Medical Association was also against the changes wanting to be brought to section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961. The primary concerns they had were that vulnerable people would feel like they were a  burden to society owing to  their disabilities. If it were expected of old and vulnerable people to die, the message it would send out would be to get rid of the weak and uplift those who are already uplifted. Disabled people would also be concerned that others think that they do not live worthwhile lives. There might be an undue pressure for the weak and vulnerable to consider death if an appointed Parliament thought it acceptable to allow assisted dying for the non-vulnerable. 

Should old people in homes should have easier access to the option of euthanasia? This question arises especially because it would be emotionally and mentally cruel to make them live a lonely life, particularly given the fact that many may be forgotten or abandoned there. If affirmative, this could be highly criticised since it would open doors for potential abuses. A fear of conspiracies to force and drive someone towards the serious consideration of giving up life looms about. Furthermore, if prescribing fatal doses of medication were rendered lawful, various forms of corruption could also erupt, including paying willing doctors extra for the prescription. This could also result in less trust value in the relationships between doctors and patients.

As a society, we should aim for a better life for everyone and make sure that our capabilities help the disadvantaged in living a more fruitful life in all capacities, however marginal that success may be. It would be an effort, and therefore an honour, to try to preserve the sacred life. Besides the concern one may have about the ‘message sent out to society’, the question which next arises is whether one should have to go through what one qualifies as ‘unbearable pain’ for the sake of society, morality and the words of God who hardly everyone believes in. Is death a legitimate aim when one’s life is ‘destroyed’ and cannot be enjoyed anymore? Would one still argue that the sanctity of life has to be preserved if one is clearly not going to live a life worth calling a life, for example being reduced to a living corpse capable only of breathing and digesting? Would that be in the patient’s best interests?

Lord Joffe had introduced a private member’s bill in 2003 which proffered the possibility for “a competent adult who is suffering unbearably as a result of a terminal illness to receive medical assistance to die at his/her own considered and persistent request.” After the latter’s failure to pass at Parliament, Lord Joffe pointed out that a majority of those who voted against this bill were those who also were against abortion, homosexuality and matters alike. He noted that such failures to decriminalise these matters were signs that the Parliament was not reflecting the progress society was making in becoming increasingly “compassionate and caring.” 

One clear distinction that has to be made is that withdrawal of life-saving treatment is different to active euthanasia where one is injected with fatal doses of medicinal drugs. The case of Airedale v Bland saw the patient refuse the continuation of further treatment. While euthanasia cannot be rendered legal, one has one’s full rights to not consent to treatment, given that one has the capacity to make that decision. This case can be compared to Shanbaug v Union of India, where the patient was not declared brain dead. As a result, passive euthanasia – switching off the treatment – was not legally allowed. The patient here remained in a permanent vegetative state for nearly four decades, barely able to conduct a life, waiting for death to knock on that hospital door. Was it really in her best interests to prolong her life where nearly forty years had shown none to marginal progress? If not, it would also be a hard task for the Parliament and courts to determine the amount of time after which one may conclude that there is no point in waiting more than how much one may have already waited. But that is no excuse for pointlessly prolonging life. There may be scientific methods available to tackle illnesses. However, they may also be too expensive for people to afford. In the battle to fight against the right to die for the preservation of this sanctity of life, financial barriers are so high that that ‘right to life’ may not even be accessible to everyone. 

Legalising euthanasia would indeed entail a series of moral and legal obligations. For example, it will be hard to legally refuse one of one’s access to it. The courts truly try hard to determine the balance between personal and public interests. Indeed, the right to self-determination and personal autonomy has to be restricted at times, for instance, to prevent one from committing suicide at one’s whims. The courts have tirelessly made it clear that, as a society, it is our duty to protect those who are weaker and more vulnerable than us, which is why Pretty was such a significant case. The case of Bland has shown us that in time of unbearable pain, passive euthanasia may be allowed, but there was a different response to Shanbaug because of the ‘brain-dead’ factor. A list of criteria has been made before allowing one to have access to euthanasia: one should have the capacity to understand one’s situation, be aware of one’s options and the chances of risk and success, and, have the mental capacity to then consent. The list also includes a second opinion from an appointed doctor and whether one’s condition consists of unbearable suffering with next to no scope for amelioration. It might obviously seem like it may be impossible to make sure no one is being coerced into, but there is only so much the law can do to ensure this option of euthanasia is not being abused. Allowing access to euthanasia obviously depends on a case-by-case basis, and there can be no generic reply. It is clear that the courts try their best to visit every aspect of the debate, but it can be argued as well that they should probably be a little less restrictive when it comes to terminal illnesses with little scope.

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