Euthanasia refers to the act of consensually putting an end to the life of a patient with an incurable disease, such as by lethal injection. Assisted suicide is similar, and refers to lethal means such as strong sedatives being made available to the patient, to be used at a time of their own choosing. Both of these practices are prohibited under Maltese law. However, as the years go by and we as a country become more exposed to liberal ideologies, someone must at some point ask the question: should euthanasia be legalised?
The main opposition towards the legalisation of euthanasia would probably be the Catholic Church. The act has been condemned numerous times by Pope Francis, as well as by Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Gozo Bishop Mario Grech. However, when delving into this topic, one must keep in mind that the Church and the State are two separate entities. Just because a practice is condemned by the Church, does not mean that it must be outlawed by the State. Catholicism might be Malta’s state religion, but that does not mean that all of its inhabitants should be forced to adhere to its values. If things like divorce and gay marriage can be legalised against the wishes of the Church, let us have the same attitude for euthanasia. Personal, religious beliefs should not dictate the laws of a country. An individual is free to practise his own beliefs, but forcing others to comply is flat out immoral.
There are many valid reasons as to why a patient would want to undergo euthanasia. Some may be terminally ill, and would prefer to die a quick, easy death rather than a painful and ugly one. Others may be paralyzed and bedridden for years on end, and might wish to be relieved of their suffering. Regardless, us healthy and able-bodied people have no right to judge these individuals for the choices they wish to make regarding their deaths, since we have not experienced their suffering, and thus we can’t assume that we would not have done the same if we were in their place. This topic might be a difficult one, but remember to empathise with those who have experienced what you have not.
In a speech to the House of Lords in 1994, British neuroscientist Lord Walton said, “We concluded that it was virtually impossible to ensure that all acts of euthanasia were truly voluntary and that any liberalisation of the law in the United Kingdom could not be abused. We were also concerned that vulnerable people—the elderly, lonely, sick or distressed—would feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to request early death.”
To this day, such an argument is very common. It basically implies that if euthanasia were to be legalised, it could easily be abused or taken advantage of, and that little could be done to prevent such a thing from happening. This is a completely understandable concern. The patient might be pressured by their family to request euthanasia due to financial reasons. The patient might be depressed, confused, and unable to make sensible judgements while making such a big decision. A doctor’s diagnosis or prognosis might even be incorrect, in which case the patient may have the possibility of getting better from their supposedly ‘incurable’ illness. However, the idea that nothing can be done to prevent this misuse is incorrect.
The Oregon Death with Dignity Act was established in 1997. This law involves many safeguards to avoid abuse. A doctor must educate the patient about all options, including palliative care, pain management, and hospice. The patient must make three separate requests, two verbally and one written. The oral requests must be separated by at least 15 days, and the written request must be witnessed by two people. The patient can revoke these requests at any time. To ensure that patients remain in full control of the process, they must administer the medication themselves.
Believe it or not, these safeguards work. An independent study published in the October 2007 issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics reports that there was “no evidence of heightened risk for the elderly, women, the uninsured, people with low educational status, the poor, the physically disabled or chronically ill, minors, people with psychiatric illnesses including depression, or racial or ethnic minorities, compared with background populations.” Thus, we can come to the conclusion that euthanasia and assisted suicide can be legalised safely so long as they are well-regulated.
Unfortunately, although assisted suicide in Oregon is deemed a success, not many patients who wish to die are eligible to do so, as the law only allows for terminally ill patients who have a life expectancy of six months or less. Hopefully in the future it can also be made available to the severely disabled, as they have just as much a right to die with dignity as their terminally ill counterparts.
Some claim that the idea of euthanasia is ableist, since it devalues the lives of the sick or the disabled. This is simply not true. Giving the sick and the disabled the option to end their life is not the same as encouraging or forcing them to do so.
In conclusion, it is completely unfair and wrong to force a patient to endure their suffering against their will, especially when we have no idea what they are going through. Thus, the Maltese government should definitely consider legalising, while also well-regulating, the practice of euthanasia.
Written by: Katrina Cassar