The Debate on Euthanasia Need Not be About Life Vs. Death

12/03/2012 21:52 GMT | Updated 12/05/2012 10:12 BST

With the story of Tony Nicklinson's "right-to-die" case headlining British news, Paula Melendez, a historian at King's College, Cambridge, puts forward the case in favour of legalising euthanasia:

Euthanasia is one of those polarising issues like drugs, prostitution or the death penalty that generate passionate and splitting debate. And as in the case of all of these, the moral façade often undermines the true issues at stake. The debate on euthanasia need not be about Life vs. Death. It should be about the right to choose and the dignity that comes with it.

We should remember that Francis Bacon first used the term 'euthanasia' in a medical sense to define a "physician's responsibility to alleviate the 'physical sufferings' of the body", especially in cases of intractable pain. Today, more than ever, we should retain this idea that euthanasia is an act of humanity and compassion to those for whom the prospect of death is better than that of a slow, painful and terminal decay.

Legalising euthanasia is empowering those who are at the mercy of their disease to have a control over their own destiny. Whether they choose to live and fight their illness or to have their doctors remove their life support to die peacefully, giving them the right to do so within a legal framework is allowing them to make a decision in their own terms. "The right to die when in an advanced terminal or hopeless illness" is in fact, as the euthanasia activist Derek Humphrey has argued, "the ultimate civil liberty".

With liberty comes responsibility, and legalisation means regulation. Indeed, for those who are worried that legalising euthanasia would expose patients to pressure from their relatives, their doctors or even the state, it should be said that the legal framework that would accompany legalisation would in itself be crucial in determining the safety of patients. Legalization is not just an on/off switch, and any state that legalises euthanasia will have the responsibility of placing the well-being of the patient above all else.

But in fact, a better quality of life for victims of terminal illness can only be attained by allowing them to balance their own individual beliefs, and to die in a safe and dignified manner if they decide to do so. As it is, euthanasia is popular enough that it is carried in unsafe conditions where those responsible cannot be held accountable. Even when it is relatively safe, patients in countries where it is not permitted having to seek euthanasia in places where it is, can hardly be called dignified. Legalising euthanasia means providing standards of care for this practice to take place and allowing the state to monitor it and blow the whistle on malpractice and abuse.

Preserving the dignity of those who choose to die is not only about making sure they are able to do so in safe conditions but about removing the stigma of those who take their own lives. As a possible outcome to a terminal disease, legalising euthanasia means a patient can discuss matters openly with family and doctors and be accompanied until the end as opposed to dying in solitude and shame.

Countries that have legalised euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, such as the Netherlands or Switzerland, may be called liberal and they are, but they are above all promoting individual choice and leaving the decision to the patient until the end. Legalizing euthanasia will not remove all the evils that may accompany it, but it is a first step in ensuring that patients of terminal illness assert their right to choose how to live and how to die.

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