The Right to Die: A Moral Dilemma

Euthanasia: The painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma. – Oxford dictionary

I remember the last time I saw my great-grandmother. She was 93. My cousin and I went alone to visit her in hospital, against our parents’ and grandparents’ wishes. They begged us not to go. They did not want our last memory of our loving granny to be that of the blurry eyes that do not recognise family, of sounds that long ago stopped being actual words, and of a skin that was falling apart due to age and years of being bed-ridden. Well, that is the last memory I have of her. However, it honestly isn’t the memory that haunts me. The picture I cannot get out of my head is the one of her saying she wished to die, over and over again for the last 3 years of her life. It haunts me because maybe her last days could have been different. Better.

Most people have a cause that they are passionate about. Euthanasia is mine. My core belief is that every adult should have the right to decide when they want to die and have a chance to do it gracefully. This belief is motivated by the golden rule of treating others as you wish to be treated. While I hope never to have to exercise that right, it makes me feel safe to know I have it (if not in my own country, then at least in Switzerland).  

My core belief was shaken when in late November 2016, I read of a Dutchman Mark Langedijk who exercised the right to euthanasia as a relief for his eight years long struggle with alcoholism. To make things completely clear, I do not object to him deciding to end his life. It makes me sad, but it is his decision and I respect it. However, I was bothered by his request for euthanasia.

I want to differentiate between three very important terms. There are two types of euthanasia. Firstly, there is passive euthanasia by withdrawing or withholding treatment, resulting in the patient dying. Secondly, there is active euthanasia, where the doctor actively and deliberately causes the patient’s death. The third option is assisted suicide, where a doctor consciously provides the patient with the drugs for the latter to commit suicide.  These terms are not interchangeable and when I say that the patient in question asked for active euthanasia, it means he required a doctor to be the one to inject the drugs.

Should that be legal, I ask myself. If someone is intellectually capable to decide to end their life, and physically able to do it, should a third person be asked to go through with the act? I can argue for the provision of a lethal substance, since it is probably much less painful and more graceful than suicide by methods available to civilians, but that is where my sympathy ends. In this case, I see no other reason for involving doctors except to shift the responsibility from the patient to the GP (and other authorities involved in approving the request), which seems highly selfish and furthermore unjust. Why should doctors (or any third person) bear the burden if not unavoidable?

Furthermore, in an interview, the brother of the deceased explained that it took his brother “a year and a half and many struggles to get it done.” It is not unusual for the process to take that long. The request has to go through many stages. Many people do endure the whole procedure because they do not have any other option. Ramón Sampedro Cameán, a quadriplegic, fought for 29 years to be allowed assisted suicide without anyone going to jail for helping him. But in Mark Langedijk’s case, where he had another option and did not use it but rather waited a year and a half for someone else to do it, it makes me wonder how badly he truly wanted it. Specifically, I am asking myself that while thinking of the doctor who has to live with this act, believing that he did what the patient wanted and what was in the patient’s best interest.

To conclude, I want to say that it took me a long time to write this. I needed to decide where I stand on this issue. I am still not sure. Saying that Mark Langedijk was wrong in requesting euthanasia goes against everything I believe in about the having the right to die. Moreover, I am being hypocritical – if I say that everyone should be able to choose how and when to die, then it follows that Mark should as well. And this seems to be what he wanted. But what is the limit?


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