The issue of euthanasia continues to agitate courtrooms and challenge the predominant legal opinions of the day. On Aug. 16, the UK’s High Court rejected 58-year old Tony Nicklinson’s request for euthanasia (Editor’s note: Nicklinson died on Aug. 22 of pneumonia). Seven years ago, Nicklinson was paralyzed from the neck down and rendered unable to talk after experiencing a stroke and developing locked-in syndrome, although he was able to communicate his wishes via a communications device.
Early 20th century US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” The High Court’s decision was logical, although it failed to respect Nicklinson’s values. The expression on Nicklinson’s face after his request was rejected was very moving. A person’s mood is capable of expressing great insight and understanding. This issue can offer us a chance to contemplate what we would think and do if we were in a similar position.
It is possible that each of us could end up leading an unbearable life as a result of an illness or accident. We should think about what we would want other people to do to help us, as well as the rights to decide the outcome of our own lives if we were to end up with locked-in syndrome or in persistent vegetative state, leaving our spirit trapped deep inside an insensate body.
Nicklinson’s case showed that the English legal system is not willing to take responsibility and instead sought to place the blame on parliament. Currently in Europe, it is only the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and Switzerland where it is not considered illegal for doctors to prescribe lethal medication. The European Court of Human Rights recently ordered Germany to compensate Ulrich Koch for damages and legal costs after his disabled wife asked to be allowed to die, although German law prohibits people from assisting another person in committing suicide. After Koch’s wife traveled to Switzerland for assisted suicide in 2005, the European court ruled that German courts had infringed upon their privacy and family life.
Over the past 11 years, more than 800 people have traveled to Switzerland for assisted suicide — more than 60 percent of whom were German, followed by French and then Britons. Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service has clearly stated that relatives who aid an assisted suicide will not be prosecuted.
Since the Netherlands legalized euthanasia in 2001, about 2,300 people travel to the country each year for assisted suicide. The US state of Oregon has allowed doctors to carry out assisted suicides since 1998, with Washington state following in 2008. These two states implemented this change to the law after holding referendums on the issue. In the state of Montana, euthanasia is decided upon by local courts. In an analysis on Oregon from 1998 to 2004, the New England Journal of Medicine found that of the 326 prescriptions for lethal medication issued by doctors, only 208 were used; research also shows that euthanasia is not being abused. One ethicist thought that disadvantaged groups would be sacrificed by this practice, but data has shown that those who receive these prescriptions do not use them straight away, that a third of them end up not using them at all and most of the people receiving these prescriptions are white people from the middle classes and above. In the end, these data convinced the ethicist to change his mind.