Published: 12th October 2019
Pull the plug or not? How assisted dying is still in the centre of the ethical-unethical debate
Assisted dying is legal in Switzerland. It involves a doctor prescribing a life-ending dose of medication to a mentally competent, terminally ill adult at his request
We don’t let animals suffer, so why should humans? I think those who have terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their lives, and that those who help them in doing so should be free from prosecution
— Stephen Hawking, English theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author
Stephen gave the above quote during an interview with BBC, published on September 17, 2013, even as he was battling a crippling motor-neuron disease, which persisted until his death five years later. Euthanasia, suicide and assisted suicide have been worldwide issues for a long time. In India, we are preoccupied with suicides by farmers, students and lovers for their respective reasons. One of the issues globally discussed is ‘assisted suicide’, with clinics in some European countries even making a business out of it under legal cover. The issue has surfaced again in Italy, as noted in the following report by AFP, released on 26/9/19 and excerpted here.
Assisted dying is legal in Switzerland. It involves a doctor prescribing a life-ending dose of medication to a mentally competent, terminally ill adult at his request. It is the patient who administers the medication to himself. Assisted dying is very different from euthanasia, in which the life-ending medication is administered to the patient by a third party, usually doctors. It also involves disconnecting life-support systems. On the other hand, assisted dying refers to providing assistance for someone to die.
According to the AFP report, Italy’s Constitutional Court, on September 25, ruled it was not always a crime to help someone in ‘intolerable suffering’ commit suicide, opening the way for a change of law in that Catholic country. It was highlighted by the Milan trial of an activist who helped a tetraplegic man die in Switzerland. The court was asked to weigh in on the case of Fabiano Antoniani, a music producer, traveller and motocross driver, who was left tetraplegic and blind by a 2014 traffic accident. Marco Cappato, a member of Italy’s Radical Party, drove Antoniani to Switzerland in February 2017, where he was helped to die, aged 40. Anyone who ‘facilitates the suicidal intention of a patient kept alive by life-support treatments and suffering from an irreversible pathology’ should not be punished under certain conditions, the top court ruled. Helping or instigating someone’s suicide is currently punishable in Italy by between five and 12 years in prison. Cappato hailed the ruling in a tweet, “Those who are in Fabo’s condition have the right to be helped. From today, we are all the more free, even those who disagree. It is a victory of civil disobedience.”
The Italian Episcopal Conference expressed their ‘discontent and distance’ from the court’s decision, quoting Pope Francis, who spoke out against assisted suicide and euthanasia. “We can and we must reject the temptation, which is also favoured by legislative changes, to use medicine to satisfy a sick person’s possible wish to die,” the Pope said. Cappato turned himself into Italian authorities after his ‘act of civil disobedience’ to highlight what he saw as an unjust law.