Euthanasia is legal only in three countries in the world, all of them EU Member States: the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. However, the reality is much more complicated, with passive euthanasia and assisted suicide being legal (or at least tacitly permitted) in several European countries.
Fundamentally, the question of euthanasia and assisted suicide usually centres on whether physicians should be able to assist – whether by administering lethal medication or providing patients with the means to do it themselves – in the voluntary death of an individual.
As part of our series of debates on Ethical Europe, we are asking whether more countries should legalise euthanasia, or whether it should be banned completely. As with many of the debates in this series, this is not an issue decided at the EU level – it is for individual European parliaments and governments to decide.
The question becomes even more complicated when we consider when (if ever) a person can really give consent to die. In 2014, Belgium became the first country in the world to legalise euthanasia for terminally ill children without any age limit. We had a comment sent in by Miro arguing that this was a terrible move, and that the federal parliament should repeal what he described as the “abominable child euthanasia law”.
To get a response to this comment, we spoke to Silvan Luley from DIGNITAS, an assisted dying organisation based in Switzerland. What would he say to Miro?
Of course, Miro, your personal opinion has to be respected. However, you must not ignore important aspects of the law in Belgium. For example… only if strict conditions are obeyed can a doctor help the patient. Besides, the patients – no matter whether major or minor – must be able to request euthanasia themselves and demonstrate they fully understand their choice.
Does a ‘grown-up’ suffer more and thus have more rights than a child? If the legal age is at 18: what is the difference between a terminal cancer-sufferer of 19 years old and the same suffering of a 17 year old? Who are we – healthy as we are – to judge over those with pain and facing death? Would you want to be denied your liberty?
To get another perspective, we also spoke to Rik Torfs, a Belgian scholar, religious commentator, and Rector of the Catholic University of Leuven. What would he say?
It is true that we should be absolutely sure of the degree of awareness of people when they are making a very important decision of that kind. So, right now, it is illegal for minors in Belgium to undergo euthanasia for psychological reasons, which is good.
For the rest, we should probably have limited euthanasia with regard to age. Indeed, having no age limit, including allowing children of 7 or 10 years old to undergo euthanasia, is not the best solution. So, I would say that the minimum age should be 16, and you will see that very few people of that age will undertake euthanasia. Suicide is a problem for people of that age, but when children of that age are ill almost none of them ask for euthanasia.
Next, we spoke to Stephen Drake from Not Dead Yet, a US-based disability rights group that opposes legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia. What would he say?
Well, I agree with Miro. The idea of giving children this so-called right is problematic on a lot of levels. If you talk to people who have had life-long chronic conditions and disabilities, almost all of them experienced the feeling that they were a burden as a child. And, being a burden is one of the top reasons that people give for wanting to be euthanised or getting assisted suicide.
With a child, they might not give this as the reason, but they feel they’re a burden on mum and dad, and they’re going to opt for euthanasia not necessarily because they want to die but because they feel guilty. And, I think it’s a crime that we will have the deaths of children facilitated because they think they’re a burden, instead of trying to convince them that that’s not the case.
Next up, we had a comment from Parthena arguing that even if you ban something in one country, people will always travel across borders to another country where the practice legal. In the case of euthansia, this has led to so-called “suicide tourism”, whereby people wanting to undertake euthanasia or assisted suicide will travel to a country (often Switzerland) where it is available. Should there be measures in place to prevent people travelling for this purpose?
We put this question to Silvan Luley from DIGNITAS for his response:
Laws preventing travelling to another country do not help in this issue and are in conflict with the human right to freedom of movement. Prohibition leads to ‘clandestine’ suicide attempts of which the vast majority fail: according to experts as well as research, for each committed suicide there are as many as ten to fifty attempted suicides which fail – with dire consequences for the individual and third persons. True protection of life lies in providing open-minded consultation and assistance to individuals considering suicide, and the only way that suicide attempt prevention efforts can be credible is if the possibility of assisted suicide is up-front respected and the taboo done away with. After all, assistance provides a reliable way to end one’s life [in a way that is] dignified, accompanied, [and] without risk of failure or suffering.
What about Stephen Drake from Not Dead Yet? How would he respond?
I think that would be very difficult. We only know if someone is going to Switzerland, which is the primary country where this happens, if they announce it beforehand. So, even the idea of preventing people from travelling for the purposes of assisted suicide would probably be impossible to do. So, I think as long as assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, there’s really very little we can or should do, except maybe really examine the practices in Switzerland, which will take almost anyone as long as they have some sort of medical condition and can pay their exorbitant fees.
Finally, we talked to Kenneth Chambaere, Postdoctoral Fellow of the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) and full-time member of the End-of-Life Care Research Group. He argued that travelling across borders in order to undertake euthanasia or assisted suicide can be a long and logistically complicated process, and there should be a framework in place to better support such patients:
Should euthanasia be legalised across Europe? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.