The word ‘euthanasia’ comes from the Greek words ‘eu’ meaning good and ‘thanatos’ meaning death. It is the act or practice of painlessly putting to death persons suffering from painful and incurable diseases or allowing them to die by either withholding treatment or withdrawing artificial life-support measures. It is also known as ‘mercy killing’ or ‘assisted suicide.’ As it stands, euthanasia has been legalized in six countries in the world with Spain being the most recent one to pass the law in March this year.
Terminally ill patients go through unbearable suffering as their illness progresses; both physical and psychological. Thus the idea is that instead of condemning a person to a slow, painful, or undignified death, euthanasia would allow the patient to experience a relatively ‘good death.’ There are two types of euthanasia: active euthanasia and passive euthanasia. Active euthanasia occurs where doctor deliberately administers a lethal dose of drugs to help a patient end their life whereas passive euthanasia is where a doctor withholds or withdraws treatment which is meant to keep the patient alive.
The debate in support of euthanasia is tied to the concept of human dignity. The concept is envisaged in many international and regional law instruments. The UDHR in its preamble provides that human dignity is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. Article 1 goes ahead to support this by providing that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. In Kenya, the right to human dignity is recognized under Article 28 of the Constitution. According to philosopher Ronald Dworkin, respect to human dignity requires respecting the ability of a person to make independent decisions and choices.
Terminal illnesses affect the independence and self-worth of patients in such a way that they no longer possess dignity. Their quality of life is diminished and they lose their self-worth and begin depending on others. Hence, the argument is that, based on their right to dignity, every person retains the autonomy to make decisions that concern them, their life and their being. That an adult experiencing intolerable pain as a result of an incurable disease, should have the right to decide to end their life or have someone else help in ending their life. A patient should not be allowed to go through so much pain, suffering and dependence on others where it is very clear that they might not recover from the illness and their wish is to die without all the suffering.
On the other hand, there is the argument that euthanasia should not be justified on any grounds. This is the position in Kenya. Whereas other jurisdictions such as Netherlands and Canada allow their citizens to end their lives as a way of upholding the right to a dignified death, ours does not. The Constitution of Kenya, 2010 under Article 26, sanctifies life. The article provides that, ‘no one should be deprived of their life intentionally, save for the extent authorized by the constitution or any other written law.’ This is evident from the judgment by Justice JM Bwonwonga in the case of Republic v Emmanuel Kiprotich Sigei & another , where he sentenced the accused persons to 15 years imprisonment for allegedly taking the life of their daughter who was suffering from acute gastritis. In his words, he said, “…the duty of the accused as parents was to care and protect the deceased. Instead, they turned against the deceased and murdered her. Even if the accused thought this type of killing was a form of euthanasia, since the child was crawling and sickly due to flu, it is still an offence to do so. ”
Some of the arguments raised against euthanasia are that, primarily, once euthanasia is legalized and normalized, it will be difficult to regulate its practice. It is the assumption that legalization will make the practice vulnerable to abuse. It grants so much power to the doctors that it might blur the lines between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. It is the start of a ‘slippery slope’ that leads to involuntary euthanasia and the killing of people who are thought undesirable. To quote Peter Singer, “Of all the arguments against voluntary euthanasia, the most influential is the slippery slope: that once we allow doctors to kill patients, we will not be able to limit the killing to those who want to die.”
Additionally, from the ethical perspective, it is argued that accepting euthanasia means accepting that some lives, such as those of the terminally ill, are worth less than others. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that, “the fact that we are human has value in itself. Our inherent value doesn’t depend on anything else – it doesn’t depend on whether we are having a good life that we enjoy, or whether we are making other people’s lives better. We exist, so we have value.” Therefore the deliberate taking of human life should be prohibited except in self-defense or the legitimate defense of others. Last but not least, it is also argued that allowing euthanasia exposes already vulnerable people to pressure: pressure to stop being a burden to their family members; pressure to free up medical services for the people who have higher chances of survival; and the patients abandoned by their families might see euthanasia as their only solution.
From a personal perspective, euthanasia is easier said than done. On one hand, yes, I could argue for the terminally ill patient going through intolerable pain and suffering. That they deserve the right to decide when to die. That dying would definitely ease their suffering. Especially when a person consents to it. Euthanasia is about letting life go peacefully, with dignity, on one’s own terms. It’s about ending excruciating suffering. It seems cruel to condemn a person to a life of pain. On the other hand however, it is difficult to see the deliberate taking of another’s life as anything less than murder. How do you convince yourself that your loved one is better off dead? Will it not then haunt your conscience? If my mother was to be diagnosed with an incurable disease, with no hope of surviving past a few months, I would hold on to her until the very end hoping for a miracle, for it is the possibility that keeps us going, not the guarantee.
Nevertheless, there are forms of Euthanasia that seem less inhuman, for lack of a better term. Palliative sedation is an example of such. This is where a doctor gives a terminally ill patient enough sedatives to induce unconsciousness such that they are unaware of any pain. Basically keeping the patient alive, but under deep sedation until they pass away naturally, in most case, without regaining conscience. In countries such as France and the Netherlands, it is not even considered euthanasia. It definitely sounds more humane and easier accept than administering a lethal dose. If Kenya were to ever take a step towards legalizing euthanasia, I believe palliative sedation might be the right place to begin. What do you think?
Author: Aisha Anwar