Is killing someone at their request an act of mercy? What does the term “death with dignity” actually mean? Can we speak about the “right to die” as one of the human rights?
There is a lot of confusion in the debate surrounding the topic of euthanasia and assisted suicide, and many people with good intentions might feel very confused. The two most common arguments in favor of its legalization are:
1. the need to end pain and suffering through any possible means
2. personal autonomy which allegedly justifies taking someone’s life if that is the wish of this person. In this text I will focus on the former argument.
Proponents of euthanasia portray it as compassionate towards those who experience unbearable pain. It’s worth mentioning that the word “compassion” comes from the Latin verb meaning “to suffer with”. Seeing one’s suffering provokes in us often extreme feelings, which is a good and understandable reaction because it can empower us to do everything we can to help the others. Yet, some emotions lead to false solutions, and those appearing as the quickest might become particularly tempting.
First, in today’s world pain in most of the cases might be effectively treated. In extreme situations, some ways of treatment are ethically acceptable even if they would shorten one’s life as long as the intent is to alleviate the suffering, not to lead to death.
Interestingly, the studies show that for most of the persons who express the wish for euthanasia, “unbearable pain” doesn’t constitute the primary reason for their decision.
According to the study on “Family Members’ Views on Why Patients Requested Physician-assisted Death” (in: Journal of General Internal Medicine), which objective was to learn from family members why their loved ones requested physically assisted death, among the most decisive factors were: “wanting to control circumstances of death”, “fear of poor quality of life in future”, “loss of independence in future”, “loss of dignity:”, “fear of inability to care for self in future”. These points could be addressed without proposing euthanasia or assisted suicide, if we lived in a culture which values people for who they are as human beings, not for what they are able to do.
In 2007, in Poland a national debate about the possible legalization of euthanasia was sparked. At that time Janusz Świtaj who became paralyzed at the age of 18, after the motorbike accident, publicly asked the state to help him to die and filed a court petition requesting euthanasia, expressly prohibited by law. He couldn’t breathe on his own, and being totally dependent on others, he felt like a burden for his parents who took care of him. Although Poland is widely regarded as a Catholic country, the polls demonstrated that the majority of people supported his request in this very extreme case. His situation drew attention from the foundation “Mimo wszystko” (“In spite of everything else”).
They provided a special machine for him which allowed for better communication and offered a part-time job. He started to make phone-calls to donors and got involved in other initiatives such as raising funds for children in orphanages during Christmas time. After this became a success, he began to study at the university where the professors helped to adjust the program to his needs, eventually received a diploma in psychology and is now working as a psychologist.
The case for euthanasia changed into a case for life because of the truly compassionate response he received.
Suffering and dependence never deprives one of dignity and to claim otherwise appears cruel towards those who suffer. People at the end of life should be offered palliative care which includes psychological and physical care and fully respects the patient. As European Association for Palliative Care states, it is necessary to “stress the importance of refocusing attention onto the responsibility of all societies to provide care for their older, dying and vulnerable citizens”.