Sat, Sep 26, 2015 - Page 8 News List

The freedom to choose when to die

By Chiang Sheng 江盛

In the West, suicide was initially tolerated. The act was first defined as a crime in later Christian teachings, when complicated theological concepts were introduced. At this point, suicide became a grave sin: The property of the person who committed suicide would be confiscated by the state, their reputation trashed, their social status and coat of arms annulled, and their groves and castles razed to the ground. In England, it was only in 1870 that laws requiring the confiscation of the property of those guilty of having committed suicide were changed, but still, all the way up until 1960, survivors of unsuccessful suicide attempts could still end up in jail for their sins.

The English poet Al Alvarez, in The Savage God, his study on suicide, provides the person who has spent their entire time on this planet striving for a high quality of life with a much welcome voice. Alvarez says that suicide represents a cry for help, an attempt to stop oneself from falling into a state of despondency. The only alternative comes in other forms: The help of the priest or the psychoanalyst or the few doctors who have the time and are willing to listen, or of groups specifically formed to deal with this kind of problems, who would try to empathize with all that the suicidal person has experienced. However, the person contemplating suicide might not necessarily need this kind of help.

California was a pioneer in this type of legislation, passing the Natural Death Act in 1976, allowing the terminally ill to establish advance directives giving permission for refusal of treatment. This is the most widely used blueprint for people supporting euthanasia.

So much has changed in legal practices over the past century: Women gained suffrage and the right to have an abortion, different ethnic groups now benefit from equality laws, and same-sex marriage has been legalized in the US and most of the UK. With all this, the legal right to die for people suffering from terminal or incurable illnesses has become the latest symbol of freedom and human rights.

Chiang Sheng is an attending physician in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mackay Memorial Hospital.

Translated by Paul Cooper

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