Deadly Decisions

The Euthanasia Debate Continues

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By Father John Flynn

ROME, FEB. 5, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Debate over euthanasia continues in many countries. Opinions were divided for months in Italy over the case of Piergiorgio Welby, who died Dec. 20 when he was administered a sedative and his artificial respiration was turned off.

More recently, in Australia, cancer sufferer John Elliot traveled to Zurich, Switzerland, to put an end to his life with the aid of the organization Dignitas. As often happens with these cases, pro-euthanasia activists exploited the emotional appeal of a suffering and terminally ill patient to push for a so-called right to die.

Elliot was accompanied in his journey by Australian euthanasia advocate, Philip Nitschke, as well as a reporter from the Melbourne-based Age newspaper, the periodical reported Jan. 27. Nitschke openly admitted that he hoped the resulting publicity would help his long-standing campaign to allow euthanasia in Australia.

Nitschke recently published a work on how to commit suicide called "The Peaceful Pill Handbook." Federal Attorney General Philip Ruddock is appealing the decision made by the Classification Review Board to allow the book's publication in Australia, the Age reported Jan. 13.

Reacting to the news of Elliot's death, Australia's health minister, Tony Abbott, warned that legalizing euthanasia would put the elderly at risk of being "bumped off," the Age reported Jan. 29.

Abbott distinguished between the legitimate use of pain relief that could hasten death as a secondary effect, and the deliberate intention to die. "If the intention is to cause death, then that is wrong and it should continue to be wrong," said Abbott. The article noted, nevertheless, that other politicians have declared their support for allowing euthanasia.

The Swiss clinic Dignitas, where Elliot went to die, is well known for its promotion of euthanasia. The clinic's founder, Ludwig Minelli, said on a recent trip to England that he was even in favor of helping depressed people to end their lives, the London-based Times newspaper reported Sept. 21.

No limits

Furthermore, Minelli told a fringe meeting at Britain's Liberal Democrats' conference in September that "if you accept the idea of personal autonomy, you can't make conditions that only terminally ill people should have this right." According to the Times, Minelli spoke to the group at the invitation of Chris Davies, a Liberal Democrat and member of the European Parliament, who is campaigning to change British law.

According to a July 3 report by Reuters, Dignitas had by then facilitated the deaths of 573 persons since its foundation in 1998.

Last year the Swiss government rejected the idea of tightening the law on assisted suicide after concern was expressed about the country's growing reputation as a haven for "death tourism."

Justice Minister Christoph Blocher said the Cabinet had decided that no new legislation was required, reported the Swissinfo agency May 31.

Shortly after the decision, three bishops from Germany, France and Switzerland issued a joint pastoral letter speaking out against assisted suicide. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiberg, retired Archbishop Joseph Doré of Strasbourg, and Bishop Kurt Koch of Basel, said that all were obliged to respect the sanctity of human life and the rights of the chronically ill and dying, reported the German agency Deutsche Welle on July 4.

At a press conference, Archbishop Zollitsch said that "at present, sick, suffering and dying people are seen as a burden to be disposed of."

Concerns more urgent than ever, after the decision by Switzerland's highest court to allow assisted suicide for people with mental illnesses. The Federal Tribunal handed down a ruling regarding the case of a 53-year-old man with bipolar disorder, who asked for help in committing suicide, the Associated Press reported last Friday.

The court ruled against his petition, asking for a more complete medical study. It did, however, state that in the case of incurable, serious disorders a mentally ill person could receive help to commit suicide.

Further worries also came after Soraya Wernli, a former assistant to Minelli, accused the organization Dignitas of being overly hasty in helping people die. The charges came in an article published in the Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, last Saturday.

In 2005, Wernli, a nurse who worked for Minelli during three years, and her husband Kurt, a director of Dignitas, left the organization, due to concerns over its work. Often, she explained, there was undue haste in the process of accepting people's request for help in committing suicide. As well, not all of the people had terminal illnesses. Wernli said that some of those helped to die were suffering from depression, while others were just elderly and wanted to die.

Disabled babies

Euthanasia is not only on the table for the elderly. There is increasing pressure for it to be practiced on newborns who suffer from illnesses or are disabled. The United Kingdom's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecology proposed that "active euthanasia" should be considered for sick babies, the Sunday Times reported Nov. 5.

The proposal came in a submission made by the college to an inquiry being held by the Nuffield Council of Bioethics on the issue of prolonging life in newborn babies. Its submission received support from John Harris, a member of the government's Human Genetics Commission and professor of bioethics at Manchester University, the Sunday Times reported.

"We can terminate for serious fetal abnormality up to term, but cannot kill a newborn. What do people think has happened in the passage down the birth canal to make it OK to kill the fetus at one end of the birth canal but not at the other?" he asked.

Opposition came from John Wyatt, a consultant neonatologist at University College London hospital. "The majority of doctors and health professionals believe that once you introduce the possibility of intentional killing into medical practice, you change the fundamental nature of medicine," he stated. "It immediately becomes a subjective decision as to whose life is worthwhile."

Shortly after the Nuffield Council issued its report in which it rejected the idea of active euthanasia for the newborn. "The professional obligation of doctors is to preserve life where they can," stated the council's press release, dated Nov. 15.

The council did, however, recommend against the use of intensive care for babies born at a very premature age of less than 23 weeks. For those born between 23 and 24 weeks, the council said their cases should be debated between parents and doctors.

The report also recommended increased support for children who survive, and for their families. "There is an inconsistency in trying very hard to save the lives of the very young without providing enough care and support for the children who survive," the council declared.

Benedict XVI recently spoke out in defense of the value of human life of those who are suffering. Illness and death is not a denial of what is human, but part of our journey which will lead us, following Christ, to eternal life, the Pontiff explained Nov. 10, in an address to the bishops of Italy.

The Pope added: "When faced with the demand, which is often expressed, of eliminating suffering even by recourse to euthanasia, it is essential to reaffirm the inviolable dignity of human life from conception to its natural end." An end many wish to hasten, by any means possible.