No Painless Death Yet for European Euthanasia Debate

By Nicholson, Richard H. | The Hastings Center Report, May 2000 | Go to article overview

No Painless Death Yet for European Euthanasia Debate


Nicholson, Richard H., The Hastings Center Report


One advantage to bioethicists of living through a change of millennium is the encouragement to look further back than usual to bioethics's origins. We have for instance just passed the centenary of the first governmental regulations that required informed consent to research on human subjects (Prussia, 1900). The centenary of the first attempt to make voluntary euthanasia lawful is not far away (Germany, 1909), and we are well into the third millennium since the first use of the word "euthanasia" (Greece, ca. 290 BCE). The first "modern" definition of euthanasia was given in about 120 CE, during the time of Emperor Hadrian by Suetonius, who described it as "mors cita et sine cruciatu"--a death swift and without pain.

More recent history is also of interest. The complete misuse of the word "euthanasia" in the Nazi program to murder those with mental illness or congenital abnormalities has made the word unusable in Germany today. The subject is now so taboo in Germany that even academic discussions are likely to be disrupted by opponents.

In the United Kingdom the first attempt to legislate for voluntary euthanasia was in 1938, but debate in the House of Lords was considerably influenced by Lord Dawson, physician to the Royal Family who had, it later transpired, "eased the passing" of King George V in 1937 with large doses of morphine and cocaine, timed to ensure that his death was too late for the evening tabloids and would be announced instead by the Times! He argued that euthanasia was not needed because doctors had the means to ensure that death by natural causes could occur without pain or distress. For sixty years, any move toward voluntary euthanasia has been countered by similar arguments, while the hospice movement has ensured that those who gain access to it do for the most part die without pain or distress.

Now, however, a problem has arisen. Not content that both the House of Lords committee on medical ethics and the British Medical Association remain firmly opposed to the legalization of voluntary euthanasia, a pro-life Member of Parliament has introduced the Medical Treatment (Prevention of Euthanasia) Bill. Were the title accurate, there would have been no need for the bill, since the issue is still covered by the 1861 Offences against the Person Act. But the principal clause of the bill reads: "It shall be unlawful for any person responsible for the care of a patient to withdraw or withhold from the patient medical treatment or sustenance if his purpose or one of his purposes in doing so is to hasten or otherwise cause the death of the patient. …

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