"We mustn't delay any longer … swallowing is difficult … and breathing, that's also difficult. Those muscles are weakening too … we mustn't delay any longer."
These were the words of Dutchman Cees van Wendel de Joode asking his doctor to help him die. Affected with a serious disease, van Wendel was no longer able to speak clearly and he knew there was no hope of recovery and that his condition was rapidly deteriorating
Van Wendel's last three months of life before being given a final, lethal
injection by his doctor were filmed and first shown on television last year in the Netherlands. The program has since been bought by 20 countries and each time it is shown, it starts a nationwide debate on the subject.
The Netherlands is the only country in Europe which permits euthanasia
, although it is not technically legal there. However, doctors who carry out euthanasia under strict guidelines introduced by the Dutch Parliament two years ago are usually not prosecuted
. The guidelines demand that the patient is experiencing extreme suffering, that there is no chance of a cure, and that the patient has made repeated requests for euthanasia. In addition to this, a second doctor must confirm that these criteria have been met and the death must be reported to the police department.
Should doctors be allowed to take the lives of others? Dr.Wilfred van Oijen, Cees van Wendel's doctor, explains how he looks at the question:
"Well, it's not as if I'm planning to murder a crowd of people with a machine gun. In that case, killing is the worst thing I can imagine. But that's entirely different from my work as a doctor. I care for people and I try to ensure that they don't suffer too much. That's a very different thing."
Many people, though, are totally against the practice of euthanasia. Dr. Andrew Ferguson, Chairman of the organization Healthcare Opposed to Euthanasia, says that "in the vast majority of euthanasia cases, what the patient is actually asking for is something else. They may want a health professional to open up communication for them with their loved ones or family - there's nearly always another question behind the question."
Britain also has a strong tradition of hospices - special hospitals which care only for the dying and their special needs. Cicely Saunders, President of the National Hospice Council and a founder member of the hospice movement, argues that euthanasia doesn't take into account that there are ways of caring for the dying. She is also concerned that allowing euthanasia would undermine the need for care and consideration of a wide range of people: "It's very easy in society now for the elderly, the disabled and the dependent to feel that they are burdens, and therefore that they ought to opt out. I think that anything that legally allows the shortening of life does make those people more vulnerable."
Many find this prohibition of an individual's right to die paternalistic. Although they agree that life is important and should be respected, they feel that the quality of life should not be ignored. Dr. Van Oijen believes that people have the fundamental right to choose for themselves if they want to die: "What those people who oppose euthanasia are telling me is that dying people haven't the right. And that when people are very ill, we are all afraid of their death. But there are situations where death is a friend. And in those cases, why not?"
But "why not?" is a question which might cause strong emotion. The film showing Cees van Wendel's death was both moving and sensitive. His doctor was clearly a family friend; his wife had only her husband's interests at heart. Some, however, would argue that it would be dangerous to use this particular example to support the case for euthanasia. Not all patients would receive such a high level of individual care and attention.