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What is euthanasia and is it legal in the UK?


EUTHANASIA is a controversial issue, with passionate campaigners on each side of the argument.

It is illegal in the UK, but the number of countries where it is permitted is growing. So what is euthanasia and what are the issues?

 Euthanasia is a controversial topic
Euthanasia is a controversial topicCredit: Getty – Contributor

What is euthanasia?

Euthanasia, sometimes known as mercy killing, is the practice of intentionally ending someone’s life to relieve their pain and suffering.

The term comes from an ancient Greek phrase meaning “good death”.

Euthanasia is deliberately helping or encouraging someone to take their own life, for example by providing them with medicine to do so.

Is euthanasia legal in the UK?

Euthanasia is a crime under English law, carrying a maximum penalty of life in jail, and assisted suicide 14 years.

The only exception is “passive euthanasia”, which is where treatment that might extend someone’s life is withdrawn – such as a life machine being turned off.

For terminally ill patients in the UK,the only alternatives are hospice care or refusing treatment, which mentally capable patients have the right to do.

As a result, some terminally ill people decide to travel abroad to die.

On July 30, 2018, a Supreme Court judge ruled that a man in a permanent vegetative state should be allowed to die, without a full court hearing.

The judgment means if families and doctors are in agreement, they will be able to remove feeding tubes without applying to the Court of Protection.

Where is euthanasia legal?

Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands in cases where someone is experiencing unbearable suffering and there is no chance of improvement.

There is no requirement to be terminally ill, and no mandatory waiting period.

Belgium allows euthanasia for those with unbearable suffering and no prospect of improvement.

However, if the person is not terminally ill, there is a one-month waiting period.

In Luxembourg, patients must have an incurable condition with constant, intolerable suffering and no prospect of improvement for euthanasia to be performed.

Canada allows euthanasia for adults suffering from “grievous and irremediable conditions” and whose death is “reasonably foreseeable”.

Voluntary euthanasia is allowed for terminal patient in Colombia.

In Australia, the state of Victoria passed voluntary euthanasia laws in November 2017.

It’s a lengthy process with several qualifications for legal approval including being a resident of Victoria, suffering an illness that has a life expectancy of less than six months and there must be three requests to the scheme.

In Switzerland, euthanasia is not legal – but assisted suicide is.

You do not have to be a Swiss citizen to use a clinic.

However, it is not cheap – assisted suicide non-profit Dignitas charges patients £3,380 for its services.

What’s the difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia?

Euthanasia is the act of intentionally ending a life to relieve suffering.

For example, it could be considered euthanasia if a doctor deliberately gave a patient with a terminal illness a drug they do not otherwise need, such as an overdose of sedatives or muscle relaxant, with the sole aim of ending their life.

Assisted suicide is the act of deliberately assisting another person to kill themselves.

If a relative of a person with a terminal illness obtained strong sedatives, knowing the person intended to use them to kill themselves, the relative may be considered to be assisting suicide.

What is the mercy killing debate?

Euthanasia and dying is a controversial issue – with passionate campaigners on each side of the argument.

People who agree with euthanasia often argue that people should be allowed to die with dignity – and they should be able to decide when and how they die, and potentially save their loved ones the pain of seeing them suffer.

Some also believe death is private, and it’s not the state’s place to interfere if a person wants to die.

Those in favour of euthanasia also point out that we euthanise our pets as an act of kindness – and resources could be put towards people who want to live, or whose conditions are curable.

However, there are concerns that allowing euthanasia would give doctors too much power, and might even worsen care for the terminally ill and research into their illnesses.

Some also believe it goes against the job description of doctors and nurses and the oath they take to not harm patients – they also say it undermines the value of human life.

Others also worry about the possibility of someone potentially recovering, or changing their mind when it’s already too late.

Some have even suggested it could lead to people feeling pressured into asking to die, as they don’t want to be a burden upon those around them.

Many religious people are opposed to euthanasia and assisted dying too, as they believe God decides when we die.

What is Dignity in Dying?

The Campaign for Dignity in Dying believes the UK should have a law that allows dying people with six months or less to live the option to control their death.

Motor neurone disease sufferer Noel Conway tried to challenge UK law on assisted dying.

The retired college lecturer took his case to the Court of Appeal after he was refused permission to bring a judicial review over the blanket ban on providing a person with assistance to die.

His lawyers said when he has less than six months to live and retains the mental capacity to make the decision, “he would wish to be able to enlist assistance to bring about a peaceful and dignified death”.

He claims the Suicide Act 1961 is incompatible with Article 8, which relates to respect for private and family life, and Article 14, which protects from discrimination.

Sun columnist Lorraine Kelly agreed, saying it was cruel for the state to deny him a peaceful death.

Lord Justice McFarlane and Lord Justice Beatson decided in his favour on April 12, 2017, granting him the right to bring a High Court legal challenge.

Earlier this year a Belgian Paralympian caused controversy when she told reporters in Rio she signed euthanasia papers in 2008 – but is not ready to go through with it yet.

Marieke Vervoort, 37, suffers from an incurable degenerative muscle disease and picked up the silver medal in the 400m T52 final.

Noel Conway’s case follows that brought by Tony Nicklinson, who suffered from paralysis after a stroke.

It differs in that he has a terminal illness and his legal team is setting out strict criteria and clear potential safeguards to protect the vulnerable from any abuse of the system.





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