You Say Murder, I Say Euthanasia

By Rayner, Claire | New Statesman (1996), June 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

You Say Murder, I Say Euthanasia


Rayner, Claire, New Statesman (1996)


How should we decide when you will die?

Claire Rayner proposes a solution

The Science Museum has a new exhibit. It is a combination of syringe driver and personal computer that, when loaded with a mixture of a fast-acting barbiturate and curare (which causes total paralysis and so stops breathing), operates as a euthanasia machine.

It was given to the museum by the Voluntary Euthanasia Research Foundation of Australia, and was brought to the new Well-come Wing by its developer, Dr Philip Nitschke. The arrival of this object was marked by a Euthanasia Forum, chaired by Sir Stephen Tumin, featuring a panel of speakers of various shades of opinion, including Dr Nitschke. They were, to be honest, far less interesting than the audience.

Most striking were the disabled people, who -- eloquently and passionately -- argued that a society which legalises the killing of sick people, even if it is supposed to be limited to those who actively request it, sends a dangerous message to its members: the lives of those who are sick, in pain, limited in their ability to operate in a self-sufficient manner, are worthless.

The disabled, they argued, all too often internalise such messages, which may make them ask for euthanasia when, in fact, there is much satisfaction in their lives. And what of the elderly who already suffer lower-quality NHS care because of their age? Won't they, too, be made to feel worthless?

Their opponents countered that those who are terminally ill, in a state of constant physical as w[acute{e}]ll as emotional and mental pain, have a hellish experience. Modern hospice care does not work for everyone, and anyway isn't available everywhere. And what of those who are not terminally ill but in a state they find unbearable -- paralysed, helpless, communicating only with eye blinks, and liable to live so for many years? And those who are sunk deep in a persistent vegetative state? Surely they should be able to die at their relatives' request? Aha! was the response: relatives may have their own selfish reasons for wanting to be rid of a sick person.

And so it went on, the now familiar set of arguments pro and con, the passion of the antis ("You are despicable!" hissed one old lady at Tumin during the coffee break -- although all the poor man had done was chair the event fairly) matched only by the scorn of the pro-lobby, one of whom said with vehemence that "these people are sentimental idiots".

The row at the Science Museum suggests that we need a pragmatic answer to a pressing human problem. So far, debate has centred around the possibility of legalising euthanasia, perhaps on the Dutch model. The drawback with this solution is that it would give politicians the power to meddle. This is precisely what happened in Australia, where euthanasia was legal for a very short time: a change of government brought a swift change in the law, and only four cases of legal euthanasia actually took place. …

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