Is Euthanasia Justifiable Ethically and in the Eyes of the Law?

In 2016 a terminally ill 17-year-old teenager became the first minor to be granted Euthanasia in Belgium.[1] The head of the federal euthanasia commission who stated that the teenager was “suffering unbearable pain” defended this controversial decision,[2] which actually abided by the Belgium Euthanasia Act 2002 that permits the practice of voluntary euthanasia in Belgium under strict guidelines.[3] The concepts of euthanasia and assisted suicide are incredibly controversial in many Western societies. However, certain countries in Europe, such as Luxembourg, have legalised the procedure. In addition, euthanasia has been legalised in Canada and several states in the United States, but the United Kingdom has continued to resist calls for its legalisation.[4] Netherlands became Europe’s first country to legalise Euthanasia. In 1984, the Dutch Medical Association (KNMG) legalised the procedure of voluntary euthanasia, however, it was subjected to certain restrictions.[5] The term euthanasia is simply defined as the act of 'deliberately ending one's life in order to relieve suffering'.[6] There are various scopes to the types of euthanasia present. These includes, passive (withholding treatment), active (the deliberate intervention to end one's life), involuntary (consent of family or friends) and voluntary (consent of the individual).[7] Under the Suicide Act 1961, euthanasia is criminalised under UK law.[8] Arguments to legalise Euthanasia in the UK relies primarily on the notion of bodily autonomy integrated with political and medical views. The contention of this article is to propose the following notion that, it is possible to justify Euthanasia on moral grounds but not in the eyes of UK law.[9] Background Until 1961, suicide was viewed as a crime in England and Wales. This also included assisting and encouraging suicide according to Sections 1 And 2 of the Suicide act 1961. The provision of the act is as follows: "2 (A) Acts capable of encouraging or assisting
(1) If D arranges for a person (“D2”) to do an act that is capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person and D2 does that act, D is also to be treated for the purposes of this Act as having done it".[10] Section 4 of the Homicide Act 1957 stated that, “It shall be manslaughter, and shall not be murder, for a person acting in pursuance of a suicide pact between him and another to kill the other or be a party to the other killing himself or being killed by a third person.”[11] But what effects does the perception of euthanasia have in society today? Current Law Subsection 2 of the Law Reform Act 1966 states that ‘fatal offence means an offence under section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961 (offence of encouraging and assisting suicide) in connection with a death of a person’.[12] In Britain, it remains a criminal offence for a person to encourage or assist a person to die.[13] This includes both euthanasia and assisted suicide. This can clearly be seen in cases such as R v Harold Shipman, where a general practitioner from Manchester was convicted of murder by ending the lives of fifteen patients using lethal injections.[14] Case Law There have been many instances where people have disagreed with the law such as in the case of R (on the application of Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice.[15] Mr Nicklinson applied to the high court on the following basis. (1) a declaration that it would be lawful for a doctor to kill him or to 
assist him in terminating his life, or, if that was refused. (ii) a declaration that the current state of the law in that connection was incompatible with his right to a private life under article 8 of the 
European Convention.[16]
 Similarly, in the case of R (Purdy) v DPP, she had won the case in the House of Lords, by arguing that it is breaching her human rights in not knowing whether her husband will be prosecuted, if he accompanies her to Dignitas.[17] The two cases stated above, indicates how under UK law, a person's autonomy is being depreciated due to the rigorous regulations imposed by the government on euthanasia and assisted suicide. Can euthanasia ever be justified? Some would agree that euthanasia could be justified. Lord Sumption, in the case of R (on the application of Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice points out that the existing law is flexible in nature as it allows for the alleviation of pain and suffering.[18] Furthermore, it could also be argued that, it is not necessarily immoral to give a drug in order to reduce pain, even though the drug causes the patient to die sooner. This is because the doctor's intention was to relieve the pain, not to kill the patient. This argument is sometimes known as the Doctrine of Double Effect.[19] It is when a person is doing something morally good that results in a bad side effect. On the contrary, some would disagree with the fact that euthanasia can be justified. Lord Browne-Wilkinson stated in the case of Airedale NHS Trust v Bland [1993], that “the doing of a positive act with the intention of ending life is and remains murder” hence, concluding that assisted suicide remains a crime.[20] Additionally, the concept of euthanasia also raises a number of moral dilemmas. One: is it ever right to end the life of a terminally ill patient who is in severe pain and suffering to a great extent? Two: under what circumstances is it right to justify euthanasia? Three: is there a moral difference between ending someone's life and letting them die? This was question by the philosopher James Rachels, who believed that there was no moral difference between active and passive euthanasia as both result in the same consequence that is death.[21] Morality, Religious influence and Quality of life There are various moral and religious debates surrounding the concepts of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Ronald Dworkin presents the argument that euthanasia should be viewed as how we value the 'Sanctity of Life’, which is the intrinsic importance of human life.[22] The 'Sanctity of Life' is the belief that human life is made in the image of god, which in nature provides intrinsic value to human life.[23] The concept of 'Sanctity of Life" is strongly endorsed by Roman Catholics, arguing that euthanasia has the intention to end a persons life and since humans are made in the image of God, therefore, he has the only power to 'give or take life away'. Peter Singer, the influential moral philosopher, disagreed with Dworkin's view on the "Sanctity of Life".[24] He stated, "Sanctity of Life should be replaced with the quality of life".[25] Furthermore, Peter Singer was also the forefather of the concept of "Preference Utilitarianism".[26] According to preference utilitarianism, an act is permitted if it "maximises the satisfaction of the interests of that person".[27] As a result, the act of voluntary euthanasia would be accepted, as it is the person's preference to die. Whereas, involuntary euthanasia involves the intervention of another being in the process.[28] Consequently, preference utilitarianism also promotes the conception of autonomy. This is the idea that one has the absolute right and entitlement to make individual decisions regarding personal matters.[29] Therefore, this indicates how moral and religious beliefs have a great influence on the perception of euthanasia in society today. Conclusion Euthanasia is a very contentious subject matter that is subjected to debate. In the UK, euthanasia is still a crime despite many claimants raising cases for the reformation of the law. In parts of Europe, the concept of euthanasia is viewed as a justifiable act but is subjected to regulations. However, due to a number of dilemmas raised in disfavour of euthanasia, it makes it difficult for courts to justify the act in a legalised manner. Bibliography [1] ‘Belgium Minor First “Helped to Die”’ BBC News (17 September 2016) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37395286> accessed 3 July 2020. [2] Ibid [3] Belgium Euthanasia Act 2002 [4] J Pereira, ‘Legalizing Euthanasia or Assisted Suicide: The Illusion of Safeguards and Controls’ (2011) 18 Current Oncology e38. [5] Diana Brahams, 'Euthanasia in the Netherlands' (1990) 58 Medico-Legal J 97 [6] Ibid [7] Suresh Bada Math and Santosh K Chaturvedi, ‘Euthanasia: Right to Life vs Right to Die’ (2012) 136 The Indian Journal of Medical Research 899. [8] Suicide Act 1961, s.2 [9] Alexandra McCall Smith, 'Euthanasia: the law in the United Kingdom' (1996) British Medical Bulletin 1996; 52 (No. 2) [10] Suicide Act 1961, s.2 (a) [11] Homicide Act 1957, s.4 [12] Law Reform Act 1996, ss.2 [13] ‘The Right to Die and Assisted Suicide’ (UK Parliament) <https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/key-issues-parliament-2015/social-change/debating-assisted-suicide/> accessed 5 July 2020. [14] Regina v. Harold Shipman [1999] [15] R (Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice [2014] UKSC 38 [2015] AC 657 [16] R (on the Application of Nicklinson and Another) (Appellants) v Ministry of Justice (Respondent), R (on the Application of AM) (AP) (Respondent) v The Director of Public Prosecutions (Appellant)’ 4. [17] R (Purdy) v DPP [2009] UKHL 45 [18] R (Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice [2014] UKSC 38 [2015] AC 657 [19] “The doctrine of double effect”BBC News <http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/euthanasia/overview/doubleeffect.shtml> accessed 4 July 2020 [20] Airedale NHS Trust v Bland [1993] AC 789, 885 [21] Natalie Abrams, ‘Active and Passive Euthanasia’ (1978) 53 Philosophy 257. [22] ‘Euthanasia, the Sanctity of Life, and the Law in the Netherlands and the Northern Territory of Australia’ <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/11690916_Last_Rights_Euthanasia_the_Sanctity_of_Life_and_the_Law_in_the_Netherlands_and_the_Northern_Territory_of_Australia> accessed 11 July 2020. [23] Ibid [24] Walter Wright, ‘Historical Analogies, Slippery Sloped, and the Question of Euthanasia’ (2000) 28 Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 176. [25] Ibid [26] Herlinde Pauer-Studer, ‘Peter Singer on Euthanasia’ (1993) 76 The Monist 135. [27] Ibid [28] Ibid [29] Tariq Teja, ‘Live and Let Die: Bringing Physician-Assisted Suicide to the UK’ (2010) 2 King’s Student Law Review 7.

This article was originally published in The Law Codex.


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