You want WHAT in Asia?

December 21, 2006 at 5:50 pm | Posted in arguments, international, news, nytimes, philosophical | 1 Comment

The Christian Democratic Party and the Vatican are up in arms again in Italy, after poet Piergiorgio Welby passed away by means of a rather creative interpretation of Italian right-to-die legislation. The NYTimes reports, “a doctor sedated him and removed the respirator that had kept him alive for the last nine years.” Sound familiar? Dr. Kevorkian and his throngs of supporters have more or less given up on the issue in the United States, after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1997 to side with state courts in banning the practice of doctor-assisted suicide, or euthanasia. More precisely, the supreme court decision refused to allow federal appellate courts to impose a constitutional or statutory right to euthanasia, perhaps correctly deducing that this decision should not, if only for the time being, be made by a federal judiciary. It’s not news that Europe is somewhat more progressive on this issue than the U.S., but now, maybe they’re not as progressive as one might think. As the NYtimes (mentioned above) explains,

Direct forms of euthanasia, such as doctor-assisted suicide, are illegal in Italy and are only permitted in Belgium, Holland and Switzerland. But Italian law allows patients, other than those with psychiatric problems and infectious diseases, to decline treatment they do not want.

The ambiguity of that last condition is what Welby wished to challenge legally, and now it seems that he has failed. The religious right are the most vocal in the wake of Welby’s death, revitalizing the argument elsewhere in Europe. As a matter of principle, doctor-assisted suicide finds supporters among moral philosophers and medical associations in the U.S. The “Philosophers’ Brief” (NYTimes Book Review), filed in the 1997 U.S. Supreme court ruling by a group of six ethicists (including 20th-century giants such as Rawls and Nozick) considers the right to die a constitutionally protected decision invoking “fundamental religious or philosophical convictions about life’s value for oneself.” More recently, a study of European medical practices in the British weekly The Lancet admits that euthanasia is emerging as a medically sound option:

there is increasing recognition that extension of life might not always be an appropriate goal of medicine and other goals have to guide medical decision-making at the end of life, such as improvement of quality of life of patients and their families by prevention and relief of suffering. (Online link to Van der Heide et. al., “End-of-life decision-making in six European countries: Descriptive Study,” The Lancet.)

The social activist group Not Dead Yet was one of many other groups in 1997 to submit briefs opposing assisted suicide, citing two basic arguments (paraphrased here from their Amici Curiae Brief) also common to the positions of conservative religious groups:

  1. Creating a right to die will make it possible to deny appropriate medical care to disabled and terminally ill individuals who otherwise would not want to die. Furthermore, it is impossible from a practical and legal standpoint to guarantee their protection from pressures to accept assisted suicide when it isn’t in their best interests.
  2. If a right to die is created, then the right should be guaranteed without discriminating against people on the basis of disability or health status. However, without such a distinction, the right to die would be too dangerous for certain individuals as per point (1). Thus the right should not be granted.

The Philosophers’ Brief, of course, insists that the right to decide one’s own fate is much more fundamental than a general right to life, especially since the latter is often incorrectly interpreted as a right to be kept alive as long as possible, despite intense personal suffering. They further argue that safeguards against improper use of the law CAN be achieved, and in light of their general moral principle, must be attempted. Interestingly, most religions–especially, yeah you guessed it, Roman Catholicism–do not accept that a person’s life is his/hers to do with as he or she would like, and thus categorically reject euthanasia regardless of the circumstances of the individual.

In the U.S., the right to die, especially as articulated in the qualified manner of the Philosphers’ Brief, would have made more legal headway if it weren’t for insurmountable practical considerations–most courts are not very enthusiastic about the nightmare of sifting through and trying to decide what constitutes a “valid” petition to die. With the precedent set by the Supreme Court, and a general ban on most forms of euthanasia in all 50 state legislatures but Oregon, the U.S. probably won’t see further legal battles in the near future. Perhaps as concrete legislation materializes in more European countries, a conclusive constitutional or statutory interpretation of right-to-die can be reached here.

A compilation
from the University of Buffalo bioethics department of Amici Curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs in the 1997 Supreme Court decision. Summary of the decision and related cases at the Washington Post.

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1 Comment »

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  1. see my blog for a response to the earlier post.


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