High media coverage on euthanesia and assisted suicide because of recent BBC documentary
In recent news, there’s been a lot of coverage of Sir Terry Pratchett’s documentary ‘Choosing to Die’, aired by BBC2 last week. The documentary shows the assisted death of a terminally ill British man called Peter Smedley, suffering of motor neurone disease. The documentary was filmed at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal.
Sir Terry Prachett is an English novelist, best known for his often comical work in the fantasy genre; he was the UK’s best-selling author of the 1990’s, and currently the second most-read writer in the UK, and seventh most-read non-US author in the US. As of August 2010 he had sold over 65 million books worldwide in thirty-seven languages. In 2007, he publicly announced that he had early onset of Alzheimer’s and became an advocate for assisted suicide in Britain and substantially supports the British Alzheimer’s Research Trust; in 2009 he filmed a program that chronicles his experiences with the disease for the BBC – ‘Terry Pratchett: Living with Alzheimer’s’.
Many have criticized ‘Choosing to Die’ as propaganda for assisted suicide while the BBC notably said the film would help viewers make up “their own minds.” After filming Peter Smedley’s assisted suicide, Sir Terry said that witnessing a death had not changed his opinion. “I am a firm believer in assisted death. I believe everybody possessed of a debilitating and incurable disease should be allowed to pick the hour of their death. And I wanted to know more about Dignitas in case I ever wanted to go there myself.”
Sir Terry said he would like to choose to end his own life rather than succumb to his degenerative condition but acknowledges that there are a number of people who are against assisted dying for religious, moral or practical reasons; at present, assisted death is both an ethically contentious and illegal act in the UK.
There are presently only two countries where euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal – The Netherlands and Luxembourg; in Columbia there are merely no restrictions on assisting a person to die. However, passive voluntary euthanasia (in which life-sustaining or life-prolonging measures are withdrawn or withheld) is legal throughout the USA. When the patient brings about his or her own death with the assistance of a physician, the term assisted suicide is often used instead. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Belgium, and the US states of Oregon, Washington and Montana.
The reader may ask what is the difference between euthanasia and assisted suicide – the procedure of euthanasia is that someone other than the patient ends the patient’s life as painlessly as possible, say when a doctor gives a lethal injection to the patient. Assisted suicide occurs when a person suffering from an incurable illness intentionally kills him/herself with the help of another individual, which can be for example a medical doctor who supplies the necessary drug for an overdose.
Euthanasia has long been a heated subject in various societies. The root of the controversy goes back about 2,500 years, when Hippocrates came up with an oath that was introduced in ancient Greece as a guide to behavior for new physicians and was later also used in the Islamic Empire. According to the UK Science Museum, “Since then it has been forgotten, rediscovered, rewritten and reused. The Hippocratic oath was probably compiled by several authors following Hippocrates’ philosophical principles.” What upholds it to this day and is used in context with euthanasia are the words by Hippocrates, “I will give no deadly medicine to any one if asked, nor suggest any such counsel…”
Before Christianity was invented, people in ancient Greece and Rome were tolerant towards euthanasia and suicide. Also pagan physicians (shamans) were most likely involved with voluntary and involuntary mercy killings. As well-known anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Throughout the primitive world, the doctor and the sorcerer tended to be the same person. He with the power to kill had power to cure, including specially the undoing of his own killing activities. He who had the power to cure would necessarily also be able to kill….”
Although the Hippocratic Oath prohibited doctors from giving a deadly drug to anybody, not even if asked for, or from suggesting such a course of action, few ancient Greek or Roman physicians followed the oath faithfully. Throughout classical antiquity, there was widespread support for voluntary death as opposed to prolonged agony, and physicians complied by often giving their patients the poisons they requested. It was Sir Francis Bacon during the 17th century who introduced the word euthanasia in a medical context, referring to a painless and happy death and that it was the “physician’s responsibility to alleviate the ‘physical sufferings’ of the body.”
The Oxford English Dictionary incorporates suffering as a necessary condition, with “the painless killing of a patient suffering from an incurable and painful disease or in an irreversible coma.” Another point is that the death must be intended, rather than being accidental, and the intent of the action must be a ‘merciful death’. Obviously, euthanasia or assisted suicide can only be voluntary. Clinics such as Dignitas provide a humane environment and all equipment necessary for that final step.
I absolutely insist that every individual has the right to determine her/his own death, in particular in view of debilitating disease. In a highly publicized case in Canada in 1992, Sue Rodriguez, diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1991, asked legislators to change the law banning assisted suicide. In a video statement played to members of Parliament, Sue Rodriguez asked, “If I cannot give consent to my own death, whose body is this? Who owns my life?” The Supreme Court of Canada ultimately ruled against Rodriguez, but her struggle galvanized the public. This courageous woman committed suicide in 1994 with the help of an anonymous doctor.
To be told by the law that I cannot end my own life is grotesque and inhuman. Osho speaks on several occasions about what he calls ‘death-control’:
“Just as we are putting a barrier on birth, birth control, let me give you another word: death-control. After a certain age – for example, if you accept seventy as the average, or eighty or ninety as the average – a man should be free to ask the medical board, “I want to be freed from my body.” He has every right if he does not want to live anymore, because he has lived enough; he has done everything that he wanted to do. And now he wants not to die of cancer, or tuberculosis; he simply wants a relaxed death.
Every hospital should have a special place for people, with a special staff, where people can come, get relaxed and be helped to die beautifully, without any disease, supported by the medical profession. If the medical board feels that the person is valuable – for example, somebody like Einstein or Bertrand Russell – if the medical board feels that the person is of immense importance, then he can be asked to live a little longer. Only a few people should be asked to be here a little longer because they can be so much help to humanity, so much help to others. But if even those people don’t want to live, that is their birthright. You can pray, ask, request. If they accept it, good. But if they say, “No, we are not interested anymore,” then certainly they have every right to die.
Why should a person be forced to live when he does not want to live? And you make it a crime, you make the man unnecessarily worried: he does not want to live but he has to live because suicide is a crime. He has to take poison, or he has to jump into the ocean or from a hill. This is not a good situation. And strange: if he dies, good; if he is caught then he will be sentenced to death. Great society! Great minds creating laws! He will be sentenced to death because he was trying to commit suicide. All these problems can be solved. Hence there is no need for public servants, missionaries, and their kind. We need more intelligence brought to the problem and how to dissolve it.”
Osho, From Unconsciousness to Consciousness, Ch 11, Q 1
I have read in William Dalrymple’s latest book ‘Nine Lives’ about an ancient Jain practice called sallekhana, a religious ritual of voluntary death by certain fasting methods that is still practiced in India today. Their view is that giving up the body should be peaceful, done with full knowledge and intent. Jain monks and nuns take the vow of sallekhana when they feel that their life has served its purpose (or they are very ill). Due to the prolonged nature of sallekhana, the individual is given ample time to reflect on her or his life. The entire chapter is fascinating and shows how an experienced mataji or guru helps the individual through all the prescribed stages in a caring way. Dalrymple quotes a nun as saying, “With suicide, death is full of pain and suffering. But sallekhana is a beautiful thing. There is no distress or cruelty. As nuns our lives are peaceful, and giving up the body should also be peaceful….”
Although there are many cultures with specific and useful death rites, one of the best-known is the Tibetan Bardo, on which we shall be commenting in the near future.
Bhagawati for Osho News