When Good Health Is No Obstacle to Euthanasia

Recent Cases Indicate the Slippery Slope Is Getting Steeper

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AMSTERDAM, Netherlands, JAN. 25, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Legalized euthanasia is confirming its opponents' worst fears.



Recent cases of assisted suicide involving relatively healthy people are lending credence to critics who feared that euthanasia laws would be violated. In one such case the Dutch Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Dr. Philip Sutorius for helping an elderly man, who "was tired of living," to die, BBC reported Dec. 24.

Sutorius gave 86-year-old former Senate member Edward Brongersma a lethal cocktail of drugs, which the patient administered to himself. Brongersma had been in good physical condition.

A lower court initially ruled that the doctor was not guilty of violating Dutch guidelines governing the practice of euthanasia. A court of appeal later ruled in favor of the prosecution, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court. The director of the Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Society said he was disappointed with the ruling.

Another case involving a non-terminally ill patient occurred in Belgium, the British daily Guardian reported Oct. 9. In fact it was the first death under a new law that legalized euthanasia. Mario Verstraete, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis, died as a result of a lethal injection on Sept. 30, only a week after the new law came into force.

Opponents of euthanasia noted that his death violated the one-month waiting period required between the time of a written request and the moment of death. Nor was he in the final stages of a terminal illness, as required under the euthanasia law.

The Guardian noted that a number of Belgian newspapers published interviews with people in the advanced stages of MS who said the idea of euthanasia had never occurred to them.

France also had a similar, high-profile case, when Mireille Jospin, mother of former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, took her own life at age 92, the Observer newspaper of Britain reported Dec. 15.

In a note written to the association Right to Die with Dignity on her last day, Mireille Jospin stated: "It is time to leave before deteriorations set in." The paper noted that she was active up until her death and was not suffering from any terminal illness.

Other recent cases involve the Swiss euthanasia organization Dignitas. A report in London's Times on Jan. 10 recounted the situation of a German, Ernst-Karl Aschmoneit, who suffered from Parkinson's.

Aschmoneit decided he no longer wanted to live and went to the Zurich-based Dignitas clinic to die. The report noted that he could still walk by himself and showed none of the uncontrollable shaking normally afflicting those ill with Parkinson's. His mind was also "razor sharp," according to the reporter, who concluded that "this is going to be a very premature death."

The Times explained that Dignitas, founded in 1998, has helped 145 people to die, usually by means of swallowing a lethal dose of pentobarbital-natrium, a barbiturate that renders them unconscious in two to five minutes and dead not long afterward.

Dignitas recently gave the go-ahead for a sister and brother, both suffering from schizophrenia, to enter a double suicide pact. He was 31, she was 29. Both were physically fit.

Nitschke strikes again

The notorious Dr. Philip Nitschke of Australia has also been accused of helping non-terminal people to die. One case involved Lisette Nigot, a 79-year-old who was neither ill nor in pain. She simply did not want to live any longer, according to the Sydney Morning Herald on Nov. 26.

Nigot committed suicide in November with a fatal overdose of drugs, leaving a note describing the euthanasia campaigner Nitschke as her inspiration. Nigot is believed to have appeared in one of Nitschke's how-to suicide videos.

Her death came two weeks after the death of a healthy couple in their late 80s, each of whom said they could not face the prospect of outliving the other. After attending three workshops with Dr. Nitschke, Syd and Marjorie Croft took a drug overdose at a retirement village at Bundaberg in southeast Queensland.

Another case concerned a woman identified as Ruth, who took a lethal drug dose at her home in the company of friends, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Dec. 16. The woman, in her 80s, was not terminally ill, and according to her own testimony did not suffer from depression. She had previously consulted Nitschke.

"All I'm doing is facing reality," she declared. "It's got nothing to do with all those trite diagnoses the so-called experts dish out. All it's got to do with, is a machine wearing out."

On Dec. 20 the Morning Herald published an article by a reporter who went along to one of Nitschke's workshops where people learn how to commit suicide. The reporter noted that Nitschke admitted he had been "intimately associated" with about 20 deaths.

Most people attending the workshops are not ill -- and some are surprisingly young, the article observed. Nitschke admits that many are simply depressed.

Workshop attendees receive a handbook including information on lethal drug dosages and information on the so-called Exit Bag distributed by Nitschke. About 1,200 people have attended his workshops.

Nitschke's next move is the marketing of a suicide machine that delivers pure carbon monoxide via a face mask. According to the daily Australian on Dec. 3, Nitschke declared that it would be difficult for governments to stop the distribution of the machine since it would be sold ostensibly for other uses.

"We will sell it through Exit Australia as an oxygen mask," he said. "We'll be saying, 'Do not put these chemicals in it because you will die.'"

His plans suffered a setback, however, when police confiscated his death machine, just as he was leaving Sydney Airport for a conference in the United States. Authorities acted under recently introduced regulations that prohibit the exportation of items related to suicide. According to an Associated Press report of Jan. 12, Nitschke declared his intention to build a new machine after the seizure of his prototype.

The power of love

Commenting on a case involving a Briton who went to Switzerland to die with the help of Dignitas, a writer in the Observer of Nov. 10 pointed out the dangers of letting people in pain put an end to their lives.

The writer, Alison Davis, has spina bifida, emphysema and osteoporosis. Confined to a wheelchair and in severe daily pain, she tried to commit suicide 17 years ago. At the time, one doctor had estimated she only had six months to live. And a law allowing euthanasia in cases of unbearable suffering would have allowed her to undergo euthanasia.

What changed her life was a trip to India, where she visited disabled children. As a result of that visit, she founded, and now runs, a charity to help the disabled children. The children, she explained, also have incurable conditions, and many suffer much pain. But, she noted: "They can and do give and receive a tremendous love, which transformed my life."

Giving love, and not an overdose, to those tempted to end their lives would be a truly dignified way to approach the problem.