Why are human beings not allowed to die on their own terms?

Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Palash Krishna MehrotraMay 20, 2018 | 09:53

Why are human beings not allowed to die on their own terms?

But he seems just fine! Why now?

There is a blank space that lies between the fact of our birth and the fact of death. It’s in this space that we practise the business of living. Being born is, in a way, an involuntary act. We don’t choose to be born. But dying — that’s a different matter.

Earlier this month, in a case that made international news, David Goodall, a 104-year-old Australian scientist, chose to end his life in a Swiss clinic. Watching him give his final interview on CNN (wearing a sweatshirt that said: “Ageing disgracefully”), listening to his wisecracks (“I'll be thinking about the needle and hoping they aim right!”), one could be forgiven for thinking: But he seems just fine! Why now?


Right to die: File photo of David Goodall, 104, a day before he intended to take his own life in assisted suicide, in Basel, Switzerland on May 9, 2018 (Reuters) 

But Goodall had had enough. He’d had a long and distinguished academic career spanning three continents, married three times, with twelve grandchildren. He was wheelchair-bound, his eyesight and hearing failing rapidly.

It was a brave act, which allowed Goodall to die with dignity. But for this he had to travel to Switzerland, one of a handful of countries (Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands and some American states) that allow a form of euthanasia called assisted suicide. The doctor places an injection of sodium pentobarbital in your arm; you administer the dose yourself, effectively pulling the plug on your own existence.

The debate over euthanasia is a fascinating one. It’s about drawing of multiple fine lines. What constitutes a vegetative state? Who decides the point at which one might say that a life is not worth living? What qualitative standards do we judge this by? Are human beings even allowed to make this call of death?

The critics say that only God or the state has this right. The oath of Hippocrates that all doctors have been taking for centuries expressly asks them to “give no deadly medicine to anyone, if asked, nor suggest any such counsel”. There are worries about the law being misused by family members. There is the lingering fear of the Nazi slippery slope: the old and the infirm were the first to be eliminated in the Holocaust.


The pioneering discussions around euthanasia can be found in Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer’s canonical book, Practical Ethics. From terminally ill children to babies with congenital birth defects like spina bifida, to accident victims, there are some incredible stories here. Each case throws up a bunch of unique questions.

Dr Kevorkian, also called Dr Death, tried to beat the law in America by inventing a contraption dubbed “the suicide machine”. He started his “practice” in 1953, and continued till he was jailed in 1999.

In the 1970s, the case of George Zygmaniak hogged headlines. Zygmaniak was paralysed from the neck down following a motorcycle accident. When the doctor told him he had no chance of recovery, he expressed the wish to die. His brother Lester walked into the hospital room, brandishing a gun; he told his brother: “I’m here to end your pain, George, is it all right with you?” George apparently nodded and Lester shot him there and then in the temple. Next he knew he was in the court room, standing trial for his brother’s murder.

This case illustrates why a legal procedure regarding euthanasia is so vital. It’s necessary to prevent people taking the law into their own hands and acting impulsively or irresponsibly. CBS News reported last year that in the Netherlands euthanasia has become an increasingly common way to die, accounting for more than 4.5 per cent of deaths. What’s even more striking is that requests have been increasing from people who are not terminally ill. David Goodall is part of this trend.


Welcome move: In March 2018, the Supreme Court recognised a living will made by terminally ill patients for passive euthanasia. 

India’s Supreme Court, in a surprise but welcome move in March this year, allowed people to draw up living wills. The living will sets out a patient’s wishes as to how they’d want to be treated in case of serious debilitating illness. This applies to those in a vegetative state or the terminally ill. Medical treatment can be withheld in order to hasten death, one of four methods outlined by the court.

Passive euthanasia is now legal in our country. It’s a far cry from eight years ago when the Konda brothers from Medak, who suffered from muscular dystrophy, had appealed to the government to be allowed euthanasia. The district medical officer had struck down the request saying there was no such law in the country. The Andhra Pradesh High Court had turned down a similar request from chess player K Venkatesh, citing the same grounds.

I think about my own grandmother. She is 91, in the final stages of dementia. She can do absolutely nothing. She is dead weight. The body withers and decays at snail’s pace. She’s in tremendous pain. Her life is one long, vacant stare.

But there are times when she sees me and smiles a weak smile; she manages to break out of the alphabet soup of dementia and utter a complete word: “happy” or “good”. Her little finger feebly curls around and clasps my little finger. For a fleeting moment she comes alive. Somehow it makes it all worthwhile. Or does it?

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: April 07, 2020 | 18:04
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