We have a right to die with dignity. The medical profession has a duty to assist

Desmond Tutu said on his 85th birthday early in October 2016 that he wanted the right to end his life through assisted dying. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Euthanasia represents one of the oldest issues in medical ethics. It is forbidden in the original Hippocratic Oath, and has consistently been opposed by most religious traditions since antiquity – other than, incidentally, abortion, which has only been formally banned by the Catholic Church since the middle of the 19th century.

Euthanasia is a wide topic with many dimensions. I will limit myself in this article to the issue of assisted death, which seems to me to be one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Desmond Tutu, emeritus archbishop of Cape Town, raised it again on his 85th birthday in an article in the Washington Post. He wrote:

I have prepared for my death and have made it clear that I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs. I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass onto the next phase of life’s journey in the manner of my choice.

Assisted death can take the form of physician assisted suicide (PAS). Here a suffering and terminal patient is assisted by a physician to gain access to a lethal substance which the patient himself or herself takes or administers. If incapable of doing so, the physician – on request of the patient – administers the lethal substance which terminates the patient’s life.

The latter procedure is also referred to as “voluntary active euthanasia” (VAE). I will not deal with the issue of involuntary euthanasia –where the suffering patient’s life is terminated without their explicit consent -– a procedure which, to my mind, is ethically much more problematic.

Passive form of euthanasia

The term “voluntary active euthanasia” suggests that there also is a passive form of euthanasia. It is passive in the sense that nothing is “actively” done to kill the patient, but that nothing is done to deter the process of dying either, and that the termination of life-support which is clearly futile, is permitted.

However, the moral significance of the distinction between “active” and “passive” euthanasia is increasingly questioned by ethicists. The reason simply is the credibility of arguing that administering a lethal agent is “active”, but terminating life support (for example switching off a ventilator) is “passive”. Both clearly are observable and describable actions, and both are the direct causes of the patient’s death.

There are a number of reasons for the opposition to physician assisted suicide or voluntary active euthanasia. The value bestowed on human life in all religious traditions and almost all cultures, such as the prohibition on murder is so pervasive that it is an element of common, and not statutory, law.

Objections from the medical profession to being seen or utilised as “killers” rather than saviours of human life, as well as the sometimes well-founded fear of the possible abuse of physician assisted suicide or voluntary active euthanasia, is a further reason. The main victims of such possible abuse could well be the most vulnerable and indigent members of society: the poor, the disabled and the like. Those who cannot pay for prolonged accommodation in expensive health care facilities and intensive care units.

Death with dignity

In support of physician assisted suicide or voluntary active euthanasia, the argument is often made that, as people have the right to live with dignity, they also have the right to die with dignity. Some medical conditions are simply so painful and unnecessarily prolonged that the capability of the medical profession to alleviate suffering by means of palliative care is surpassed.

Intractable terminal suffering robs the victims of most of their dignity. In addition, medical science and practice is currently capable of an unprecedented prolongation of human life. It can be a prolongation that too often results in a concomitant prolongation of unnecessary and pointless suffering.

Enormous pressure is placed upon both families and the health care system to spend time and very costly resources on patients that have little or no chance of recovery and are irrevocably destined to die. It is, so the argument goes, not inhumane or irreverent to assist such patients – particularly if they clearly and repeatedly so request – to bring their lives to an end.

I am personally much more in favour of the pro-PAS and pro-VAE positions, although the arguments against do raise issues that need to be addressed. Most of those issues (for example the danger of the exploitation of vulnerable patients) I believe, can be satisfactorily dealt with by regulation.

Argument in favour of assisted suicide

The most compelling argument in favour of physician assisted suicide or voluntary active euthanasia is the argument in support of committing suicide in a democracy. The right to commit suicide is, as far as I am concerned, simply one of the prices we have to be willing to pay as citizens of a democracy.

We do not have the right, and we play no discernible role, in coming into existence. But we do have the right to decide how long we remain in existence. The fact that we have the right to suicide, does not mean that it is always (morally) right to execute that right.

It is hard to deny the right of an 85-year-old with terminal cancer of the pancreas and almost no family and friends left, to commit suicide or ask for assisted death. In this case, he or she both has the right, and will be in the right if exercising that right.

Compare that with the situation of a 40-year-old man, a husband and father of three young children, who has embezzled company funds and now has to face the music in court. He, also, has the right to commit suicide. But, I would argue, it would not be morally right for him to do so, given the dire consequences for his family. To have a right, does not imply that it is always right to execute that right.

My argument in favour of physician assisted suicide or voluntary active euthanasia is thus grounded in the right to suicide, which I think is fundamental to a democracy.

Take the case of a competent person who is terminally ill, who will die within the next six months and has no prospect of relief or cure. This person suffers intolerably and/or intractably, often because of an irreversible dependence on life-support. This patient repeatedly, say at least twice a week, requests that his/her life be terminated. I am convinced that to perform physician assisted suicide or voluntary active euthanasia in this situation is not only the humane and respectful, but the morally justified way to go.

The primary task of the medical profession is not to prolong life or to promote health, but to relieve suffering. We have a right to die with dignity, and the medical profession has a duty to assist in that regard.