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The right to choose to die

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The right to choose to die

During the month of March many occasions are celebrated and commemorated in South Africa such as the National Water Week, Human Rights Day and National Library Week to name but to a few. Chief amongst those, and arguably the most promulgated, perhaps because of its historical currency, has to be Human Rights Day. It was on the March 21 1996 in Sharpville that former president Nelson Mandela signed into existence the country fully fledged constitution which had been in its interim format since 1993. Contained in our world renowned constitution is the Bill of Rights which set out the government’s obligation to ensuring the progressive realization of the citizenry’s rights. The right to life is the foundation of South Africa’s constitutional democracy; put differently without the right to life every other right in the constitution can not be realized.

There has been a considerable amount of media coverage that has been given to the hotly contested debate surrounding euthanasia and physically assisted suicide and this is because of a case involving a University of the Western Cape employee who, while in New Zealand, administered a dose of morphine at her mother’s request, who was terminally ill and in pain and wished to be put out of her ‘misery’. Because euthanasia and physically assisted suicide are illegal in New Zealand, the UWC employee, who is a doctor, has been charged with the murder of his own mother. At the moment only the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxemburg and three American (Montana, Washington and Oregon) permit the practice of euthanasia and physically assisted suicide. Inevitably there’ve been opposing forces to this debate with pro-life campaigners arguing that human life is valuable while the right to die lobbyists’ premise is that people must be given the ability to choose their own destiny.

In countries such as a France, hospice programmes are well resourced with the intention to care for patients who may require the most intensive and intricate care and by so doing ‘eliminating’ the idea of wanting to introduce seemingly ‘drastic’ laws like euthanasia. The central theme by those who support the right to die is that “terminally ill” people, who sometimes stomach much pain, ought to not be made to endure the slow, unbearable and sometimes undignified process of certain ways of dying when alternative of choosing to die is at their disposal. They are also view the rejection of the right to die argument as being prejudicing to people who are physically incapable to committing suicide since that isn’t against the law as long as there isn’t any undue influence or incitement that inspired the act of suicide. The fact that a person, who is in full control of their mental faculties, can refuse life prolonging medication can also been seen as a default voluntary euthanasia because in refusing to take medication the patient is in a sense choosing the right to die and very possibly earlier than they would’ve had they taken medication. When the UWC lecturer was asked why he acceded to his mother’s demands, he said he did it out of compassion for his mother. Was he supposed to ignore an old lady’s dying wish and watch as his own mother degenerate painfully? Does his emotional state count? Could he have caved into his mother’s death request because he too was drained by her state of being or lack of it? These are some of the questions that he may well be expected to answer to when he has his day in court in New Zealand.

Pro-lifers’ rebuttals to the term “terminally ill” is that there’ve been instances where people have been said to be “terminally ill” with no hope beyond 6 months to live but have gone on to live more than ‘scientifically’ projected life expectancy suggested and as such wouldn’t the legislation of euthanasia and physically assisted suicide lead to people choosing to die based on medical improbability (and not certainty)? When convicted fraudster Shabir Shaik was released from prison, correctional services authorities said it was on medical ground because he was “terminally ill”. He has seemingly recovered to the extent of being capable of beating up a journalist as it has been reported. Remember the young HIV Aids activist, Nkosi Johnson? Do you recall how doctors said he wouldn’t see his seventh birthday; didn’t Johnson outlive his ‘scientifically’ calculated life expectancy? If euthanasia was legal in the country, imagine what would’ve happened had the aforementioned people opted for it? Another credible argument from the anti-right to die is that the introduction of such laws would in all likely-hood disadvantages those at the periphery of health care coverage. They say a person who is painfully ill but is unable to pay exorbitant private hospice care fees may be swayed, whether by pain or by not wanting to be seen as a burden, to take the euthanasia route. It was reported that in the American state of Oregon that government had planned to cut back on healthcare coverage in poorer surroundings as soon as euthanasia and physically suicide laws were passed. Who says elderly people at old age homes, who aren’t in full command of their thinking capacity, wouldn’t be made to sign up to their death because the expenses associated with taking care of them are eating into shareholders dividends? The illegal organ syndicates could also find a way of coercing people who don’t see the value of continuing to live to sell off their organs in return for money for the loved ones who remain behind.

The fact that there’re strict requirements as such the medical history of the patient seeking euthanasia, that s/he must be a resident of the country or state where such procedures are performed (with the exception of Switzerland) and there also needs to be a few considerations by two medical doctors, does in a way regulate the euthanasia industry. But things aren’t that simple particularly when we consider the human element and its inclination to being corruptible. The right to self determination in its fullest extent versus a right to life based constitution like that of South Africa would truly be a litmus test to the civil liberties and extent to which the citizenry allowed to enjoy them. At what cost and to whose benefit would the legalization of euthanasia be if it’s legalized? Only time will tell.

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