Let’s talk about death. Outside of the realm of science-fiction, the fact remains that everyone will die. Yet how and when we die can often be made subject to human control, and thus these still remain sensitive topics. The recent assisted suicide of two twin brothers from Belgium has brought the question of euthanasia back to the forefront of contemporary debate, reminding us that these issues continue to be controversial.
In December 2012, deaf twin brothers Marc and Eddy Verbessem from Belgium were legally euthanised by doctors. Euthanasia is legal under Belgian law which states that a doctor may assist a patient in ending his or her life after consulting with a second, unaffiliated doctor, but only if the patient is capable of making their wish clear repeatedly over time and is suffering from unbearable physical or psychological pain. The case of the Verbessem brothers, who were suffering from glaucoma and chose to die rather than live a life with neither sight nor sound, has made international headlines. Many people argue that the brothers weren’t suffering unbearable pain and therefore their euthanasia cannot be justified. The case has re-opened the debate surrounding euthanasia, and what is often termed to be the “right to die.”
Currently, voluntary euthanasia is legal in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and in Oregon, Washington, and Montana of the United States where it is called assisted suicide. But recent “right to die” cases and legislation being considered in Canada and Ireland, as well as discussions in other countries where euthanasia is illegal, are reigniting the debate over euthanasia and whether or not as individuals we are afforded a right to die.
Euthanasia and the law
Marc and Eddy Verbessem were twins from the village of Putte, Belgium. They were both born deaf and inseparable throughout their lives. According to The Telegraph the brothers communicated through a special kind of sign language, known only to them and their immediate family. As the twins grew up, they shared a flat and became cobblers together. But later in life the brothers both began to develop a genetic form of glaucoma which causes blindness and led them to fear that they may become dependent on others. Their older brother, Dick Verbessem noted, “They lived together, did their own cooking and cleaning. You could eat off the floor. Blindness would have made them completely dependent. They did not want to be in an institution.”
The brothers enlisted a local doctor named Dr. David Dufour to perform the euthanasia, but it took almost two years to find an institution willing to perform the procedure. Finally, in December 2012, the brothers said goodbye to family members at Brussels University Hospital in Jette, and became the first documented case of a “double euthanasia.” Dufour noted that the brothers had conscientiously made their decision: “They were very happy. It was a relief to see the end of their suffering,” he said. “They had a cup of coffee in the hall, it went well and [had] a rich conversation. Then the separation from their parents and brother was very serene and beautiful. At last, there was a little wave of their hands, and then they were gone.” Yet though the brothers had the support of their family and the doctors involved, many question if the death of the brothers fits within the definitions of Belgian’s euthanasia law.
According to an article in The Lancet, the laws of the Netherlands and Belgium define euthanasia as “the act, undertaken by a third party, which intentionally ends the life of a person at his or her request, and in both countries euthanasia can only be effected by a doctor.” Further, a “doctor can only proceed when they know the patient well enough to be able to assess whether their request for euthanasia is voluntary and well-considered, whether the patient’s medical situation is without prospect of improvement, and whether the individual’s suffering is unbearable. The ability to refuse a request for euthanasia guarantees a doctor’s freedom of conscience in both countries.” The death of the Verbessem brothers has sparked debate over whether the brothers were really facing unbearable suffering, and how loosely the law should be interpreted.
Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an oncologist and former White House adviser, wrote in The Atlantic that providing assisted suicide to those not suffering unbearable physical pain is a slippery slope: “Once legalized, physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia would become routine. Over time doctors would become comfortable giving injections to end life and…comfort would make us want to extend the option to others who, in society’s view, are suffering and leading purposeless lives.” He continues to say, “Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia should not be performed simply because a patient is depressed, tired of life, worried about being a burden, or worried about being dependent. All these may be signs that not every effort has yet been made.”
While many question if the Verbessem’s situation qualified as “unbearable suffering,” the debate over voluntary euthanasia continues around the world, with pro-euthanasia advocates upholding a belief in the “right to die” while those who oppose it questioning what the basis for such a right.
The “right” to die
The topic of euthansia conjures up many uncomfortable and polarizing moral dilemmas: Do individuals have the right to decide when to end their own lives? Is it justifiable for others to end the life of someone who is suffering? What qualifies as suffering? Is there a difference between killing someone and letting or helping them die?
Many advocates for the right to die argue that the Universal Declaration on Human rights, which claims for all people “the right to life, liberty and security of person”, can also be interpreted as the right to decide to not have life. Advocates also argue that since individuals have the right to control their own bodies, they therefore also have the right to determine how their body lives or dies. However, those who argue against euthanasia state that the right to life must be interpreted as the right to protect and preserve life. They also argue that the right to die does not imply a duty to help end life. This ancient argument goes so far back as to be found in the Hippocratic Oath, the ancient oath to which Greek physicians were required to adhere, which maintains that physicians should “neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor make a suggestion to this effect.”
On such a sensitive subject, even physicians are divided. Emanuel argues that “the proper policy, in my view, should be to affirm the status of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia as illegal. In doing so we would affirm that as a society we…do not consider that to have one’s life ended by a doctor is a right. This does not mean we deny that in exceptional cases interventions are appropriate, as acts of desperation when all other elements of treatment—all medications, surgical procedures, psychotherapy, spiritual care, and so on—have been tried.”
In Quebec, Canada, the government is currently discussing decriminalizing physician-assisted suicide under strict qualifications similar to those found in the Netherlands and Belgium. According to Global News, the government wants “to affirm a person’s right to make a choice,”but that ultimately, the final decision should be left to the doctor. Leaving the decision to the doctor will ensure that the doctor’s rights are not impeded upon if they do not believe in assisted suicide. Yet for now, those who feel that they are suffering with a life not worth living continue to struggle with the illegality of their wish to die.
In Ireland, Marie Fleming is appealing her “right to die” case to the Supreme Court. Fleming is a 59-year-old in the final stages of Multiple Sclerosis, an autoimmune disease which affects the brain and central nervous system. According to Ireland’s Journal, Fleming feels that the country’s ban on assisted suicide is forcing her to”live in pain and indignity” because she is unable to end her life by herself. Her husband has agreed to assist her if his actions were deemed to be legal. Fleming stated, “Tom has promised to help me, only if it’s lawful. Otherwise, I will die a horrible death which could take months or even a year.” The High Court stated in their judgement that the discontinuance of the ban would open a “pandora’s box” of possible abuses to the law.
Until her case reaches the Supreme Court, Fleming will continue to suffer with her Multiple Sclerosis. While Canada and Ireland proceed debating whether or not to implement or uphold euthanasia laws, Belgium is expanding theirs. The Telegraph notes that within days of the Verbessem brothers’ euthanasia, Belgium’s government tabled a new legal amendment which will allow the euthanasia of minors “capable of discernment or affected by an incurable illness or suffering that we cannot alleviate” and those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.The right to die is an ancient debate, one which has caused disagreement across continents and centuries. Euthanasia, assisted suicide, and the basic argument for aright to choose not to live contain hotly contested moral dilemmas layered with political, moral, and religious elements which seem to halt the conversation in many countries. What are our rights when it comes to life and death? Is euthanasia the only humane way to address unbearable psychological and physical suffering? With the moral issues surrounding the debate so intertwined with our beliefs about humanity and life, this discussion and debate will no doubt continue for many years to come.