Life in the Cross Hairs

Assisted Suicide Pressures Continue

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JULY 6, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Advocates of assisted suicide continue to press their case in many countries. In Germany a former senator from Hamburg, Roger Kusch, released a video of him helping a woman commit suicide, reported Reuters on July 1.

Kusch advised Bettina Schardt on how to prepare a lethal mix of drugs that would kill her. Schardt, 79, was not suffering from any serious illnesses. Before helping her to die Kusch filmed 9 hours of conversation with Schardt, who said she dreaded being taken to a home for the elderly.

Kusch's actions came in for widespread condemnation, reported an article posted on the Spiegel Online site July 1. Jörg-Dietrich Hoppe, president of the German Medical Association, termed what was done "abhorrent and deeply shocking." Germany's Health Minister Ulla Schmidt said, "I reject this path categorically."

Kusch said that Schardt got in touch with him after he made headlines earlier this year when he presented a "suicide machine" that patients could use to inject themselves with a deadly cocktail.

The month before, in England, assisted suicide came to the fore again when a woman with multiple sclerosis received leave to argue her case before the High Court, reported the BBC on June 11.

Debbie Purdy is considering traveling to Switzerland where assisted suicide is legal. Her action regards the fate of her husband, Omar, who theoretically could be prosecuted for helping her commit suicide on return from Switzerland.

Purdy is going to the High Court to ask the director of public prosecutions to clarify the law.

Increasing pressure

Commenting on the case in the July 8 edition of the Sunday Telegraph, Alasdair Palmer said he sympathized with Debbie Purdy, particularly as he suffers from multiple sclerosis himself.

The legal challenge, if successful, would be the first step on the way to legally recognizing an entitlement to assisted suicide, Palmer warned.

An explicit "right to die" would significantly change the context in which life-or-death decisions are made, he added, greatly increasing the risk that people could be pressured into putting an end to their lives.

Melanie McDonagh, commenting on the case in the Telegraph, June 13, said that what people like Purdy really need is better medical attention and treatment, as well as advice for her husband to help him cope with eventual problems. Dignity in dying consists in helping people with better care, not helping them commit suicide, McDonagh argued.

Some of the dangers involved with assisted suicide were highlighted in a recent case in Sydney, Australia. A jury found Shirley Justins and Caren Jenning guilty of the manslaughter of Justin's de facto husband Graeme Wylie, reported The Australian newspaper June 20.

The conviction was a blow for the pro-euthanasia movement, the report argued. Both Justins and Jenning are members of Exit International, an organization that campaigns in favor of euthanasia and is run by Dr. Phillip Nitschke.

During the trial, Justins admitted aiding Wylie's suicide by giving him Nembutal, which Jenning confessed to bringing to Australia. The prosecutor, Mark Tedeschi, said Justins was primarily concerned with safeguarding her financial future.

One week before his death Wylie changed his will, leaving almost all his $2.4 million estate to Justins.

Senate report

Debate over assisted suicide is set to continue in Australia, with a proposal before the federal senate to overturn restrictions. In 1996 the Northern Territory introduced a law to legalize assisted suicide.

Both the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, where the nation's capital Canberra is located, do not, however, have full legal autonomy. Shortly after the legalization, federal authorities overturned the law.

Earlier this year Bob Brown, a senator for the Green Party, introduced a private bill to rescind the law that prohibits the two territories from legalizing assisted suicide.

A senate inquiry into the proposal brought down its report recently, with senators strongly divided on the issue, reported the Age newspaper June 27.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has previously announced his opposition to legalizing assisted suicide. The initiative, however, will not be easily resolved as the Labor Party government led by Rudd needs the support of the Green Party in the Senate to get its laws approved.

False compassion

One card often played by advocates for assisted suicide is compassion for the terminally ill. A case in point was the situation of Chantel Sébire, a 52-year-old woman in France who took legal action to allow doctors to help her die, reported the BBC on March 17.

She suffered from a severely disfiguring and incurable facial tumor, and had been refused the "right to die." The BBC commented that her case sparked widespread debate and sympathy.

Bruce Crumley, commenting on the case in an article posted April 1 on the Web site of Time magazine, noted that Sébire's plight had prompted re-examination of French laws prohibiting active euthanasia.

Nevertheless, the debate was ill-informed about one crucial aspect, Crumley pointed out: For nearly a half decade, Sébire had continually refused treatment for her disease, before it evolved to the terminal phase that resulted in her wanting to die.

Doctors explained to Crumley that her tumor could have been surgically treated with a good chance of success. Yet Sébire turned down proposals of surgical intervention, and also subsequently rejected the palliative services and medication doctors offered.

Axel Kahn, a physician and member of the French National Consultative Committee on Ethics, told Time that the public response to Sébire's case was "compassionate and emotional." Kahn lamented that only too often in such matters the emotional reaction wins out over a rational analysis.

Margaret Somerville, director of the Center for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, reflected in a June 27 article in the Ottawa Citizen on the difficulty of combating pressures for assisted suicide.

Somerville described how she addressed the issue of euthanasia last semester with her law students at McGill University. She said that on finishing the course she felt that the students had not understood what the problems with euthanasia were.

Individualism

After feedback from the students and reflecting on the issue, Somerville came to the conclusion that one major problem in arguing against euthanasia and assisted suicide is the context of secular societies based in an intense individualism.

One of Somerville's students commented that she thought that as individuals' rights have been given priority in contemporary society, they should also prevail in matters related to death.

Dealing with such arguments, Somerville continued, means we have to avoid religious-based positions and argue against euthanasia from a secular perspective. There are solid arguments from this perspective, but they lack the emotional impact that dramatic pleas from terminally ill patients have.

Benedict XVI spoke about the ethical challenges in caring for the dying in his Feb. 25 address to participants in a congress organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Not only believers, but the whole of society is bound to respect the life and dignity of those persons who are dying or are seriously ill, he affirmed.

The Pope also called for assistance for the families who are put to the test by the illness of a relative, especially when it is prolonged.

"Greater respect for individual human life passes inevitably through the concrete solidarity of each and every one, constituting one of the most urgent challenges of our time," the Pontiff added. A solidarity that does not consist in merely putting to death people who need our support.